After a frantic few months on and off the field, Chelsea have been under pressure to bolster their center back this summer, having lost two center backs Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger to free agency. But by taking off Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly for €40m, they have signed one of the best defenders in the business.
In an era when even the top European clubs are looking almost exclusively for value and potential from newcomers, a €40m transfer fee for a 31-year-old in the final year of his contract can seem a bit prohibitive. Koulibaly is hardly a “Moneyball” signing from a purely transfer market perspective, especially since the Senegal international secured a four-year deal with the option to extend until the end of the 2026-27 season. However, Chelsea made a smart choice as their supporters had hoped and it is the kind that could immediately help the club in contention for the Premier League title once again.
A star in Naples since arriving from Genk for around €8 million in 2014, Koulibaly made his name in Serie A and when asked about his weaknesses, a top scout from Serie A told ESPN: “What are the weaknesses? Difficult? [to find any]. He is one of the best players in his position. He’s constantly improving, especially the mental aspect of his game – even periods of concentration are becoming few and far between.”
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In fact, there are few shortcomings in Koulibaly’s game, except for the occasional mistakes that can be expected when appearing in a position where something is usually caught. With the defensive linemen always in the thick of action defensively – having to read the game completely and timing their interventions in a split second – strange miscalculation comes with the area. However, Koulibaly generally gives the impression that he is in control, and when he enters into a challenge, he does so with complete conviction.
The most striking aspect of Coulibaly’s game is the power he brings to the field. Often frowned upon in the age of analytics – yet still appreciated by coaches and managers – the concept of “presence” can be ambiguous and controversial to some. However, for those who care about the way a player behaves on the pitch, when it comes to style and confidence, the defender shows rare qualities. He plays with his head, is calm in possession, dominates his opponents and plays with a certain “aura” – another word taboo in many departments of analytics – which isn’t necessarily common for modern-day defenders.
Coming onto the pitch in high quality doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes – lapses in concentration and moments of erratic distribution can occur, sometimes as a result of what some might consider overconfident playing style – but Koulibaly’s faith in himself is so contagious that it passes on to his teammates. .
For all his calmness in possession, or when dealing with situations of pressure, the new Chelsea centre-back still displays an aggressive style in defence. Being immobile and quick on the ground, he prefers to deal with danger early, often coming out of the defensive unit to win the ball up the field. Perhaps most importantly, the 31-year-old is excellent at defending against one and rarely has to rely on a teammate to get him out of trouble.
The stats measured across European leagues are often misleading due to the diversity in the playing styles and task specifications of the players. Although his numbers show he still lags behind the likes of Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk in general, he compares favorably with Ruben Dias and Manchester City’s Rudiger, now at Real Madrid. Not a bad company to keep.
During his eight-year spell at Napoli, Koulibaly has also shown tactical improvement year after year. Although his usual status was never under threat during that time – not through a series of negative performances or injuries – he is still gradually maturing. Having arrived for the first time as a defender who was somewhat shy with the ball, he waved goodbye to ardent San Paolo fans as one of the best central defenders in Serie A – rarely afraid to fire specific passes through crowded areas in the middle of the field rather than picking an easy ball for a position Linebacker or central defensive partner.
Despite usually playing as a left-sided center back in Napoli’s quarterback (although coach Luciano Spalletti occasionally returned to three backs last season), the elegant defender should have a few problems at Chelsea. Although the club lost a world-class defender to Rudiger, they quickly found a world-class replacement – albeit with slightly different characteristics and technical form.