Koulibaly is finally heading to England, but why has it taken so long?

Kalidou Koulibaly is finally heading to the Premier League, but why has it taken so long? The Chelsea-bound defender described by Carlo Ancelotti as ‘one of the best’ he’s worked with is a towering presence and could be the perfect fit for Thomas Tuchel

  • Chelsea are closing in on a £34million deal to sign Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli
  • Koulibaly has been linked with countless European clubs over the past six years
  • But his long-term contract at Napoli allowed the club to drive his price up
  • As well as Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona saw approaches rebuffed
  • Now, though, Koulibaly arrives in England as the ideal fit for Chelsea’s backline
  • His aerial and intervention abilities mean he will slot in perfectly to their defence 

After being linked with virtually every Big Six team there is over the past five years, transfer-rumour regular Kalidou Koulibaly is finally closing in on a move to the Premier League this summer.

Chelsea have opened talks with Napoli over a potential £34million deal for the defender, who has confirmed his proposed switch to Stamford Bridge is ‘on the right track’.

Koulibaly is now expected to become Thomas Tuchel’s third recruit of the summer, following Manchester City duo Raheem Sterling and Nathan Ake to SW6 ahead of the new season.

Yet at the age of 31, why is he only arriving in England’s top flight now? Sportsmail has taken a closer look at Koulibaly’s journey ahead of his anticipated move to Chelsea.

Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly is finally closing in on a move to the Premier League with Chelsea

Born to Senegalese parents in France, Koulibaly first ventured into football at the age of eight with hometown club SR Saint-Die before Metz came calling four years later.

During his first stint with the Ligue 1 outfit, his gangly frame and rigid style failed to win over coaches who felt he lacked composure and control on the ball.

Koulibaly was therefore released by Metz in 2006 and he returned to SR Saint-Die as a crestfallen 15-year-old – and he knew improvements were needed.

From that point onwards the towering youngster modelled his game on France legend Lilian Thuram, saying in 2014: ‘He’s the player who inspired me. He gave me a lot of joy, alongside other stars who won the World Cup in 1998. 

‘Thuram was an example on and off the pitch, and I hope to reach his level.’

After taking inspiration from Thuram, Koulibaly caught Metz’s eye again at the age of 18, with the now-Ligue 2 side offering him another chance to impress in their youth ranks.

Koulibaly started his career with Metz before completing a move to Belgian side Genk in 2012

The Senegal star has previously revealed he modelled his game on France icon Lilian Thuram

It was at this point when his footballing journey finally took off, as just one year later Metz were on hand with a professional contract having performed well for their reserve side. The boy from Saint-Dié-des-Vosges was up and running.

However, Koulibaly’s time in the pro ranks with Metz was marred by a series of error and confidence struggles. Manager Dominique Bijotat once said: ‘Every mistake made him lose his focus for the rest of the game.’

In his two seasons with the club he racked up 47 appearances but was unable to prevent their relegation to France’s third tier, and without any offers in his own country Koulibaly moved to Belgium to sign a four-year contract with Genk in 2012. 

Mistakes had plagued his game at Metz but in a new city and country the centre-back came into his own, instantly becoming a first-team regular and gaining plaudits for his aerial prowess, interceptive work and passing ability. 

Lapses in concentration and rash decision-making still occurred, albeit a lot less frequently. And being able to operate at full-back also made him a versatile option. 

He featured 92 times for Genk, scoring three goals and helping the Pro League club claim the Belgian Cup in 2013. Koulibaly had emerged as one of the brightest prospects in European football in the process, meaning it wasn’t long before he began attracting interest from some of the continent’s top teams.

Manchester United and Monaco were rumoured to be eyeing a move in 2013, though it was Napoli who pressed ahead with a transfer the following year when Rafa Benitez became a huge admirer.

Rafa Benitez was a huge admirer of Koulibaly and decided to bring him to Napoli in 2014

It didn’t take long for him to hit the ground running in Naples, instantly becoming a regular

Benitez, having been told to watch Koulibaly in action by his scouts in Naples, liked what he saw so much that he called the player personally to urge him to join them that summer. Yet, at the time Koulibaly thought he was the victim of a prank call.

‘I hung up on Benitez two or three times,’ he told Oranje Blog. ‘I thought it was a friend of mine pulling a prank. I didn’t believe he would call me, but it was true. I was so embarrassed and kept apologising.’

Napoli completed a £6.5million deal to prise Koulibaly away from Belgium and over the past eight years he has become a stalwart for the club, remaining an integral member of the team under numerous managers while being linked with countless European clubs.

While he was in and out of the side during his debut season with Benitez, the 6ft 1in star established himself as an indispensable the following year under successor Maurizio Sarri.

Koulibaly featured 42 times that campaign as Sarri’s men narrowly missed out on the Serie A title, and his solid performances at the heart of their defence earned him a place in the division’s Team of the Year – an accolade he would receive for four straight years.

At the end of that end season interest in Gli Azzurri’s star defender ramped up. Chelsea reportedly saw a £50million bid rejected, failing to tempt Napoli to cash in with three more years still to run on his contract.

He earned a place in Serie A’s Team of the Year at the end of his second season with Napoli

Barcelona are also said to have approached the Italian club around that time, only for Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis’ £60million asking price to prove out of their reach. This would be a recurring theme over the next six years.

With several clubs eyeing him up, Koulibaly continued to put in fine displays at the back for Napoli, impressing in the Champions League and coming mightily close to winning Serie A in 2017-18 – a campaign which would bring highs and lows for him on an individual note.

After helping Sarri’s men go 10 games unbeaten, Koulibaly had the Italian title within his grasp in the second half of the season. And with four games remaining he powered home a dramatic 90th-minute winner against Juventus to move them to within a point of their closest rivals.

Nevertheless, this joy was short lived for the Senegal international, who was sent off within 10 minutes of their next fixture against Fiorentina, which ended in a 3-0 defeat.

Juventus were crowned champions and while Napoli finished with a record 91 points, Koulibaly, again paying the price for reckless play, was left to rue his costly red card at Stadio Artemio Franchi.

The towering centre-back has attracted attention from several potential suitors over the years

But after tying him to long-term contracts, Napoli chief Aurelio de Laurentiis has held the aces

De Laurentiis once rejected a £95million offer from Manchester United for the centre-back

Even this did not deter potential suitors from going after him, but Napoli acted quickest and tied Koulibaly down to a bumper new five-year contract that summer.

As Sarri and star midfielder Jorginho left to join Chelsea, the club were aware they could not afford to lose a man nicknamed The Wall in the same window. 

However, Koulibaly’s extension shifted power straight back into the hands of De Laurentiis, who rejected a £95million bid from Manchester United the following December.

The Napoli chief, desperate to keep hold out of United’s clutches, slapped an eye-watering £100million price tag on his beloved defender and ultimately ended his chances of a move to England.

Over the past four years, interested parties have continued to follow but De Laurentiis has continued to price them out of a transfer, valuing Koulibaly considerably higher than any club was willing to pay.

And when taking a look at what Carlo Ancelotti, who replaced Sarri as Napoli boss in 2018, had to say about him, it’s not hard to see why.   

And when assessing how highly Carlo Ancelotti rated Koulibaly it is not hard to see why

The legendary manager once claimed Koulibaly was ‘one of the best’ he’s ever worked with

‘Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the best I’ve ever coached, along with the likes of Maldini, Nesta, Cannavaro, Ramos, Thuram and Terry,’ the former Real Madrid, Chelsea and AC Milan manager said.

‘At this moment I think Koulibaly is one of the best in the world.’

Given he is valued so highly by one of the finest coaches of the modern era, De Laurentiis’ desire to keep him at all costs is well and truly justified. And when United paid £80million to sign Harry Maguire in 2019, the Italian bigwig claimed his man was worth three times as much.

No club had managed to tempt him into a sale until this summer, when Koulibaly entering the final year of his deal once again left Napoli with a decision to make.

At 31 years of age, the player is still at the peak of his powers and offers so much to a defence, yet another extension appeared to be off the cards. Koulibaly reportedly had no intention to sign fresh terms in Naples, meaning an offer worth roughly £34million from Chelsea was too good to turn down.

When taking a glance at his statistics from last season, the former Metz and Genk star could be the perfect fit for Thomas Tuchel’s system at Stamford Bridge.

Compared to Chelsea’s other defensive targets – Matthijs de Ligt, Jules Kounde, Milan Skriniar and Ake – Koulibaly stacked up best in the 2021-22 campaign when it came to interventions.  

On average last season he registered 1.4 tackles, 1.1 interceptions, 3.1 clearances – equal to De Ligt – and 0.9 blocks per game. 

The 31-year-old is at the peak of his powers and could be the perfect fit for Chelsea next year

Last term Koulibaly outshone the Blues’ other defensive targets when it came to interventions

Thomas Tuchel may well have found the ideal centre-back to slot into his three-man defence

His pass completion of 87 per cent is also solid given he averaged 60.8 passes per game for Napoli, while he was also on hand with three goals and as many assists.   

His disciplinary record was not too troubling, with five yellows and a red card fairly standard practice, but his injury history will concern Tuchel most.

Over the past two and a half years Koulibaly has missed 31 games due to fitness issues, and given the 31-year-old now has as many years on the clock his condition could worsen.

Though, if he remains fully fit in west London Chelsea may well have found the perfect replacement for Antonio Rudiger, albeit on a short-term basis.

In a high-block, three-man defence, Koulibaly’s exceptional anticipation, aerial and passing abilities, plus his bulky 1.85 meter frame, will make him a nightmare for opposition attackers to play against.

While he isn’t exactly a buy for the future, his arrival at the Bridge could make Rudiger’s regretful exit a distant memory. 

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