Is Senegal's Koulibaly the best CB in Italy?

Often times soccer fans debate about the best players in the world which usually boils down to either Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo who recently joined Juventus in Italy. This is usually because these players are consistent in scoring goals and matches are won by goals. Consequently, not much recognition is given to midfielders who create those chances let alone defenders who protect the back as the team attacks. Because of that, FirstTouch makes a conscious effort to appreciate the contribution of defenders to the game. In this piece, we look at a certain Senegalese centre back by the name Kalidou Koulibaly and compare him among the best defenders in Italy and the rest of the world.

Background

Napoli conceded only 29 goals in the 38 matches that they played and the Senegalese defender was intelligent in his play. He was tasked with stealing the ball from the strikers and stifling any threats just in front of the arch and he did just that. He only committed 8 fouls in the process which is significantly low as compared to other defenders like Giorgio Chiellini of Juventus who committed 27 fouls and Bonucci with 25.
— Tinotenda Magiya, FirstTouch Africa

The Napoli defender currently valued at €100m was born in France to Senegalese parents and identifies as African. He began his professional career at Metz in 2010 before joining Genk, the club that nurtured other world class talents like Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois in 2012. He pledged his allegiance to Senegal in 2015 although he had represented France at the Under-20 football level. He was eventually picked to solve the defensive situation at the Naples side, where he has been a consistent performer since 2014.

Koulibaly’s Strengths

Organizing the defense is part of the requirements when comparing the very best of defenders in Italy. The players have to be great at communication with their goalkeeper and the rest of defenders playing on the team. Kalidou Koulibaly is a leader in that Napoli team and has helped his team throughout the 2017/18 campaign. The best way to assess a defender’s ability to communicate is by looking into the individual errors committed by the player leading to a goal. Koulibaly was not culpable of such mistakes in the previous season and has started this 2018/19 season very well. He looks sharp and commanding at the backline next to Raul Albiol.

Robert Lewandowski of Poland is challenged by Kalidou Koulibaly of Senegal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group H match between Poland and Senegal at Spartak Stadium on June 19, 2018 in Moscow, Russia.  (June 18, 2018 - Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Europe)

Robert Lewandowski of Poland is challenged by Kalidou Koulibaly of Senegal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group H match between Poland and Senegal at Spartak Stadium on June 19, 2018 in Moscow, Russia.

(June 18, 2018 - Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Europe)

Besides, the primary role of a defender is to shield the goal and prevent the ball from going in. Koulibaly was exceptional in the 2017/18 season where he led his team to a second placed finish in the Italian Serie A. Napoli conceded only 29 goals in the 38 matches that they played and the Senegalese defender was intelligent in his play. He was tasked with stealing the ball from the strikers and stifling any threats just in front of the arch and he did just that. He only committed 8 fouls in the process which is significantly low as compared to other defenders like Giorgio Chiellini of Juventus who committed 27 fouls and Bonucci with 25. It is clear that the African defender would be the best bet among these Italian defenders because he is less likely going to put the team in trouble through committing unnecessary fouls in dangerous positions. This season as well, he leads the pack in terms of interceptions (6), blocks (2), tackles (8) and clearances (7) in just the three games that he has played. Both Chiellini and Bonucci, the so-called best defenders in the league are far behind the African star which makes us question the criteria used by the relevant authority in determining the best defender in the country.

According to Pep Guardiola, defenders in the modern era have to do more than just defending. They have to instigate the attack which means that they need to have the quality to pass the ball from the back. We also looked at this part of Koulibaly’s game comparing him to the Juventus pair. His ball playing abilities were above every other defender in the league. He made 3324 passes across all competitions compared to Chiellini’s 2196 and Bonucci’s 1951. If that is not enough, he also had the most completed passes pegged at 91%. Chiellini and Bonucci were at 87% and 86% respectively. These numbers are out of the ordinary and it is no surprise that Chelsea were rumored to have submitted a €100m bid in the summer of 2018 which was turned down by Gli Azzurri (The Blues). Kalidou Koulibaly is just quality!

Limitations

Kalidou Koulibaly of S.S.C Napoli during the international friendly game between Liverpool and Napoli at Aviva Stadium on August 4, 2018 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Aug. 3, 2018 - Source: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images Europe)

Kalidou Koulibaly of S.S.C Napoli during the international friendly game between Liverpool and Napoli at Aviva Stadium on August 4, 2018 in Dublin, Ireland.

(Aug. 3, 2018 - Source: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images Europe)

The only explanation for being snubbed from the conversation of the best defenders in the world boils down to the fact that Koulibaly last won a trophy 4 years ago. Many debates about the very best include the aforementioned individual statistics as well as the accolades won collectively. His club has not done him justice and he must be disgruntled seeing players like Sergio Ramos win the UEFA Best Defender Award ahead of him when he conceded more goals than him and was nowhere near the numbers achieved by the 28-year old. Maybe if Napoli become more ambitious and stop selling their best players, he might be able to mount a challenge for the biggest titles in Europe and earn his status among the best defenders.

Also, Koulibaly has had little success so far in trying to create a formidable partnership at the back with Lamine Sane at the back. The Senegalese team looks very strong on paper but somehow, they still lack that competitive edge when it matters the most. In the 2018 FIFA World Cup, they were the best African team at the tournament, arguably the best team in the group but they still failed to make it past the Group Stage. A lot more is expected of him from his national side.

What’s next?

Catch Koulibaly in action this international break when his side, Senegal, plays against Madagascar in the AFCON Qualifiers. He must be disappointed by his nation’s early exit from the biggest individual sporting competition on the planet. Koulibaly will be looking to guide his team to victory against the Southern African team. Senegal currently lead Group A with 3 points after having beaten Equatorial Guinea by 3 goals to nil back in June 2017. We anticipate this to be an easy victory for Senegal.