Napoli’s in-demand Kalidou Koulibaly has been Serie A’s finest defender this season

Words by Adam Digby Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 10, 2018

It was a performance that served as a perfect metaphor for his dominance of the 2017/18 Serie A campaign. For 95 intense minutes at Juventus Stadium in a game then vital to the title race, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly was the best defender on the field, no easy feat against the vaunted backline of the Bianconeri.

Lining up against Medhi Benatia and Giorgio Chiellini, it was the Senegalese international who looked the most accomplished, blocking shots, intercepting passes and constantly winning challenges against a star studded attack. Indeed, despite fielding Douglas Costa, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain – not to mention bringing Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic off the bench – Juve failed to get a single shot on target, but Koulibaly was not content with merely shutting down the Old Lady’s frontmen.

With seconds left to play, Napoli won a corner and he moved forward into the box. Jose Callejon whipped in a dangerous looking cross and his 6’ 5” colleague climbed higher than any other player, planting a header firmly beyond Gigi Buffon and into the back of the net. He wheeled away in sheer delight, his team-mates, coaching staff and the vocal supporters in the north east corner of the ground joining him in celebrating a truly decisive goal.

The 1-0 win put the Partenopei just a single point behind Juventus with four matches of the season left to play, their effort unquestionably the most consistent and sustained of any the Bianconeri have faced in recent years. Most of their six consecutive titles have come at a canter, but this year it has been very different, Napoli’s “Scudetto Pact” seeing a hugely talented group of players remaining to try deliver the trophy their fans so desperately crave.

As Diego Maradona can certainly attest, bringing silverware to this sprawling southern city sees you idolised for a lifetime. The club has only clinched the Serie A title on two occasions, both coming when the unstoppable Argentinian wore their iconic pale blue shirts, and he remains a God-like to anyone who loves Napoli even today.

Napoli owe much of their resilience to the imposing figure of Koulibaly, his giant shadow rivalling that which the dormant Mount Vesuvius casts across the bay.

Much like that team of the late 1980s and early 1990s lived and died on Diego’s mercurial left boot, it has been their attacking play that garners much of the headlines. Playing in a similar manner to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the Azzurri dominate possession and are capable of stringing an endless number of passes together, but they can also strike with deadly speed on the counter attack.

That interplay, as well as the goals of Dries Mertens and hometown hero Lorenzo Insigne, are replayed endlessly, but the difference this year has been the side’s gritty resolve whenever the ball is lost. Previously lacking the toughness that underpins any title winning side, Napoli owe much of their resilience to the imposing figure of Koulibaly, his giant shadow rivalling that which the dormant Mount Vesuvius casts across the bay.

They have recorded more clean sheets (17) than any other team in the division, and the 26-year-old has been simply imperious, averaging 2.3 tackles 1.3 interceptions and 3.3 clearances per 90 minutes. Also winning 3.4 aerial duels per outing, Koulibaly has proven equally important to Napoli’s free-flowing style, connecting with 91.3% of his 88.7 pass attempts per game, the latter figure more than any other defender in Serie A.

His play has continually improved under Sarri’s tutelage, and the man himself is in no doubt as to the impact the veteran Coach has had upon his career. “He rediscovered me, he gave me confidence,” Koulibaly told Il Messaggero back in October. “He really is a genius, he sees things others don’t see. He makes you understand how football is and that it isn’t as unpredictable as it seems. He’s a scholar, any question you ask him, he always has an answer… and it’s always right!”

Tall, strong, quick across the ground and capable of weighing in with crucial goals, the consistent improvements in Koulibaly’s displays have not gone unnoticed among Europe’s biggest and wealthiest clubs. After joining Napoli from Belgian side Genk in a deal worth just €6.5 million in July 2014, talk of fees more than ten times that amount have been discussed over the last twelve months as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are all believed to have expressed their interest in him, rumours his agent did little to downplay this week.

“There’s always a need to refresh things at a club, and that implies a change of players or staff, but I have no information about Napoli, although they certainly need to improve,” his representative Bruno Satin told Radio CRC. “I don’t know anything, neither do I know if Chelsea or Napoli will qualify for the Champions League or not. It’s important to understand how the season will end because important players want to play the Champions League.

In that same interview, Satin also admitted that, unlikely many of his team-mates, Koulibaly’s contract – which expires in 2021 – does not contain a release clause but insisted that his client could yet remain with Napoli for another year. Yet as news of goalkeeper Pepe Reina’s impending switch to AC Milan begins to emerge, that aforementioned pact between the players appears to be over whether they clinch the Scudetto or not.

That could spark an exodus of talent, and given his quality, age and his ability both on and off the ball, there will be no shortage of suitors for Kalidou Koulibaly, a man who has been the best defender in Serie A this term.

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