Kalidou Koulibaly – Napoli’s Complete Defender

I think if you went back in time to July 1, 2014 and seen this come across your Napoli news feed, you’d probably not have been overly impressed:

Raw, unrefined, lacking composure, poor passer of the ball. All descriptors of the then 23-year Old Senegalese defender. Given all of that, Kalidou Koulibaly arrived from Belgian side Genk for €8m on that day, and what we’ve gotten since is all that Napoli tifosi could’ve ever asked for in a central defender.

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In this piece, I’d like to focus on some of the things that Koulibaly has done to improve from that raw player into one of Serie A’s most complete defenders.

Defensive Powerhouse:

Koulibaly has always had physical gifts in spades. He has always been able to use those gifts to his advantage, but it wasn’t always as put together as it is now.

In his early days at Napoli he was prone to mistakes, and that raw power and strength often got Koulibaly into the referee’s book.

This is the first area of maturity and growth you see in him. In his first two seasons at Napoli (14-15 and 15-16), K2 as Napoli fans call him, saw himself booked 21 times (20 yellow, 1 red) in 55 Serie A matches. In his 47 Serie A appearances since then (16-17 and 17-18), Koulibaly has been carded only 9 times (all Yellow).

The ability to win challenges in the air on the defensive end has been something else you see Kalidou do often. Using his size and strength to tower over opposing attackers, and also using his pace to catch up to almost any opposing players.

Even against the world’s best he can close space and remove them from the ball.

I think where Koulibaly has grown the most defensively, is his reduction in costly errors. This season to date, Kalidou has made 0 defensive errors directly leading to a goal, or even a chance at goal. This number is down from 4 in 2014-15, and 3 in both 15-16, and 16-17.

Pass Master

I think as an overall area of improvement, this has to be his biggest area of growth as a player. He has grown from a player who was often extremely shaky in possession, to someone who is absolutely vital to Napoli’s build up from the back. Let me show some proof here:

In 2014/15, Koulibaly’s first season with Napoli, it’s safe to say he was not the most confident in his passing skills. He finished that season ranked 27th in Serie A in completed passes, with 1,244 out of 1,435(87%) hitting the mark in 27 matches played.

That doesn’t look too bad, but let’s compare that to this season thus far. The Senegalese defender this season is currently ranked 2nd (behind Jorginho) in completed passes in Serie A with 1,436 out of 1,580 (91%) successful in 19 matches played. He hit a high this season against Cagliari:

That means this season he has already completed more passes in 20 matches than he even attempted only 3 seasons ago. That, to me, is unbelievable in terms of grown confidence and poise.

Goal Scoring Monster?

In this respect, Koulibaly has grown immensely. Especially this season, in the wake of losing Arek Milik (again) with an ACL injury, we have found Kalidou as a focal point in the air on corner kicks. He has found the net 4 times this season already, 1 more than his total from his first three seasons at Napoli combined (3). The manifestation of what he’s been able to put together offensively looks something like this:


 

I could probably go on even longer about how important Kalidou is for Napoli, and how his composure, poise, and confidence has changed over the last 4 seasons, but if you watch Napoli it really does shine through.

I would venture to say he is top 3, if not the best central defender in Serie A, and probably cracks top 10 in the world as well. Getting that out of the player we brought in from Genk is a true testament to Maurizio Sarri and the big man himself, K2, Kalidou Koulibaly.

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By Ken Cioffredi 

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