In the summer of 2014, Napoli signed Kalidou Koulibaly for a fee of €7.75 million from Genk. After that, the Senegalese national team player improved his skills as well as his status in world football. Now, he is regarded as one of the best centre-backs in the whole world and his market value increased by up to 70 million euros. After his long-term hamstring injury (Serie A: matchday 16 vs. Parma) Koulibaly played only one game for Napoli under their new coach Gennaro Gattuso on matchday 23 against Lecce (9 February). During that time, Gattuso had a lot of work to stabilize the squad and their performances. Koulibaly is the player who exuded most stability and consistency in Napoli’s team before, as you will see in this analysis.
Role in the system
Napoli´s head coach Gattuso prefers to play in a 4-3-3 formation to stay stable in their own defence. The forwards can use their pace in quick transitions. In this system Koulibaly has the ability to play a key role as a defensive leader of the team. He is used to playing on the left centre-back position next to another good defender (Konstantinos Manolas).
Koulibaly uses his upper body strength, rather than going for a ground tackle, to make a shoulder tackle on his opponents and tries to disturb their balance. After that, he easily wins the ball. Therefore, he does not go for a ground tackle unless it is really necessary.
In the following image, Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) tries to protect the ball. But, Koulibaly uses his upper body strength to make a shoulder tackle and tries to disbalance Sterling.
Of course, Sterling does not have the height and the strength of Koulibaly. Let us take a look at a duel against Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite his age, Ronaldo is still in excellent shape and is regarded as one of the fittest or even the fittest player at all. Nevertheless, Koulibaly tries to disbalance him by using his upper body strength. He uses this method against both physically strong and weak strikers.
Another example: Koulibaly uses his speed to catch up with Dzeko (Roma). Then, the Senegalese pushes the physically strong forward away by challenging him shoulder-on-shoulder. That is why, Koulibaly is able to clear the ball and Napoli can rebuild their normal formation again to defend the following throw-in.
Apart from his body strength, Koulibaly also possesses pace. This combination of strength and pace he uses to defend in 1-vs.-1 situations. It takes something special to win a battle against Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain) who has an electric pace. This example is shown in the following image: You can see that it is really hard to beat Koulibaly in 1-v-1 situations. His quick pace and powerful physique help him to win these battles against the very best in world football.
This is so important for Napoli because the other centre-backs in the current squad are not fast at all. As you can see in the following example, Kostas Manolas knows that he has no chance to win a duel against the opponents forward because of a lack of pace. He wants to clear the situation by heading the ball, but he does not hit it. Luckily for Napoli, Koulibaly has good pace to clear the situation in combination with his upper body strength.
Adding to that, Koulibaly is not afraid of leaving Napoli´s defensive line. He often leaves the line to press or counter-press the opponents. A prime example of this situation is shown in the image below during the match against Chievo Verona. The 28-year-old leaves the defensive line to go into an aerial duel even if his teammates in the midfield line are already next to their opponents.
In the image below, Koulibaly leaves the defensive line once again. This procedure is very important as Napoli wants to counter-attack. Now, Koulibaly has the opportunity to win the ball in the opponents half. After that, he can create a goal-scoring opportunity by using his ability to break the lines.
Koulibaly is one of the best ball-playing centre-backs in Europe and he uses his ability to break the first line of the opposition defence. In the image below, you can see that one pass can make a huge impact.
Breaking the opposition lines and finding his man behind Lecce’s midfield with just one pass, Koulibaly was able to break Lecce’s offensive and midfield line. Their offensive, as well as their midfield line, were taken out and for Dries Mertens lots of space is opened now. Napoli’s left full-back and left-winger have lots of space as well.
In Napoli’s current squad, the Senegalese is the only defender with that ability. Diego Demme, who came from Leipzig in the winter transfer window, could not show his passing ability yet but is just trying to stabilise the defence.
In the next image, Mertens drops deep in between the lines to receive the pass from Koulibaly who can pick the man between the lines. Koulibaly is the one who starts Napoli’s attacks from the back.
Koulibaly has also the necessary calm in pressing situations. As shown in the image below, Genk are pressing high up the pitch which has opened the space for Napoli’s quick transition if they can break Genk’s press. Almost the entire Genk team is eliminated and Napoli now has a 2-v-2-situation in the attack. That all started because of one smart pass from Koulibaly.
Besides that, Koulibaly is not just good at playing short passes but he can also play perfect timed long passes. You can see that in the following image: Napoli’s forward recognises the free space and demands the ball. Koulibaly reacts quickly and plays a perfect long pass and breaks lines again.
Use of free space
We have seen it many times that in Napoli´s system the centre backs step out from the defence and attack any space that becomes available. Below you can see that Koulibaly has the ball. But, instead of pressing him Bologna drops back. That is why Koulibaly can step out of the defensive line and attacks the free space.
He uses the time to overview the whole pitch and tries to find a man who is not marked. In this situation, he finds the left-wing and has the option to play an interface pass to him. With keeping his pace the left-wing can easily run into the penalty box and score a goal or can assist a teammate. In this example, Koulibaly becomes a starting point of the attack in Napoli’s system.
Koulibaly uses this procedure with the Senegalese national team as well. In the picture below, you can see that Koulibaly recognises a free space. Therefore, he starts running into it instead of staying defensively. This might be risky, but it can help the team to create an offensive action.
Koulibaly didn’t play as many minutes during the era of Gattuso as head coach. Nevertheless, he will play a key role in the upcoming matches for Napoli in Serie A. In the past, he proved his outstanding qualities in several situations during a match. Besides his powerful physique, he combines pace and intelligence. That is why he will be indispensable for Gattuso in his system.
In 2018, Koulibaly extended his contract at Napoli till June 2023. However, many European top clubs are interested in signing him. From June 2021, Koulibaly could leave the southern Italian club thanks to a release clause which has a buy out clause of €150 million.
Manchester United are looking for a centre-back who is constant and robust. That is why they are reported to be in the pole position to sign him. It will be interesting to see if Koulibaly uses this option to move to an even bigger club. One way or another, Koulibaly will still play an important role over the next years.