After a not so impressive 2014-15 season under Rafael Benitez, which saw Napoli finish a dismal 5th in Serie A, a rejuvenated Partenopei did brilliantly to come 2nd in the league last season and secure an automatic Champions League spot. There were several factors that led to this spectacular improvement - Coach Maurizio Sarri’s shrewd tactics, Gonzalo Higuain's record-breaking goal tally, the upturn in form of Marek Hamsik are some of the big factors. But Kalidou Koulibaly’s rock-like presence in defense was also equally important if not better. With the 25-year-old an ever-present member at the back, Napoli conceded only 32 goals last season, as opposed to 54 in 2014-15. It is definitely no surprise that Europe’s elite, including Chelsea, have him in their wishlist for the summer.
Koulibaly was born in Paris to Senegalese parents on 20th June 1991 and was eligible to play for Senegal and France as a result. He chose to represent Senegal despite France coach Didier Deschamps expressing his interest in calling him up for France. He began his career at his hometown club of SR Saint-Die before joining the academy of Ligue 1 club FC Metz. He made his professional debut for them in 2010 before moving to Belgian club FC Genk in 2012.
He made 41 appearances for Genk over a span of 2 years before Napoli signed him up on a £5.25 million deal in 2014. His first year in Naples was not one to remember. Koulibaly, who stands at 6ft 5in, looked ungainly and often suffered lapses in concentration during matches in what quickly turned out to be a forgettable season. But under Sarri this season, his transformation has perhaps embodied and even fuelled the improvement in Napoli’s performance.
Physique: Koulibaly has an imposing physique and is a robust and imposing defender. He can intimidate and physically dominate strikers. Another plus point of his height is that he is excellent in dealing with aerial balls. In fact, he’s won a commendable 2.5 aerial duels per game last season plus 2.7 interceptions and 3.7 clearances per game. It is no surprise that he is nicknamed ‘K2’, presumably a tribute to the Himalayan peak of Mount K2.
Versatility: Another plus point of the Senegalese defender is that he can play across the back 4 - as a left and right back or centre back. He can also play the role of a defensive midfielder if the need arises. Highlighting this is the fact that his passing improved tremendously last season (pass completion: almost 86%) - a byproduct of Sarri’s attention to the minutest details and focus on bringing out the best out of his players.
Positioning: Being at the right place at the right time is a very important trait for a defender. His reading of the game improved drastically over 2015-16 season and is quick to dispossess a forward or intercept a pass. He is also an excellent tackler, helping him recover in case he puts a foot wrong.
Discipline: As mentioned above, Koulibaly loses concentration at times during matches - a problem area which is being worked on by the Senegalese. He has also improved his concentration appreciably this season but that has not stopped him from conceding numerous silly fouls. He conceded a total of 59 fouls in Serie A last season - more than any other central defender in Italy. Invariably, it leads to a high number of bookings. This is the most important aspect of his game he needs to iron out if he is to succeed at a big club like Chelsea.
Goalscoring: Despite what he brings to the side as a defender, he seldom contributes at the other end of the pitch. Despite possessing an impressive physique, his goalscoring record is abysmal. He has scored just 1 goal for Napoli in his 2-year-spell - a header (predictably) in a 3-3 draw with Palermo. He has scored just 5 goals in his professional career. If he can make use of his aerial ability to contribute to the team in set pieces, his importance in a team would increase manifold.
Long passing: Koulibaly is good in the air and neat in possession - but mostly prefers to play short passes. He is not comfortable playing long passes but then again it is not a big flaw. That depends on the playing style the coach prefers.
Koulibaly’s current contract with Napoli runs till 2019 but his agent has made it clear numerous times that his client would consider an approach from a big club. No surprise, considering his stock rise from being an unknown defender to an imposing giant who held the Partenopei defence together last season. France coach Didier Deschamps remarked early this year, “I've also been following Koulibaly (for the French NT)”, without knowing that he had already amassed 5 caps for Senegal.
The Senegalese is a big fan of Lilian Thuram, one of the stars of the all-conquering France team of the late 90s, and Italian football experts have started comparing him with his idol. As a matter of fact, Argentina & Napoli legend Diego Maradona called him the best defender in Serie A right now. While that might be an arguable statement, considering Chiellini, Bonucci and their likes ply their trade in Serie A, there is no doubt that Koulibaly is right up among them and a move to a bigger club would be richly deserved.