Welcome to Window Shopping, a recurring feature in which Defector highlights and analyzes some of the biggest players rumored for a big-money transfer each window. Each summer and January, we will take a look at these potential stars in order to answer two simple questions: Who the heck is this guy, and why is he worth so much money?
The transfer market’s rumor mill grinds hardest for attacking players. It makes sense. Attackers are the most exciting players on the field, and generally have the most visible impact on a team’s successes. They are also the easiest to judge, at least in a surface-level way: if they score lots of goals, and/or provide lots of assists, then you can consider them good. It stands to reason that chatter about potential moves for the cool and fun players would dominate the discussion. Defensive players and their mooted transfers are less sexy, even though a strong defender can turn a club’s fortunes around just as much as a shiny new striker.
Enter Jules Koundé. The 23-year-old Sevilla center back is currently in the eye of a rumor storm that has him going either to England, or to France, or just across Spain. The price tag in play, as of right now, is astronomical: His release clause reportedly stands at €89 million, though Sevilla would likely take something in the €60–70 million range in exchange for their star prospect. Those are attacker prices, which speaks to how much the best clubs in the world value outstanding center backs. The question then becomes this: Is Jules Koundé an outstanding center back, and if so, is he worth this kind of price to secure his talents?
What Are The Rumors?
Let’s take a dive into the curious case of Jules Koundé transfer rumors. Last summer, Chelsea looked set to sign the Frenchman, but the deal never went through. As is often the case with transfer rumors, once a player is linked to a club at something beyond the exploration phase, they are linked forever. Coming into this summer window, it looked like Chelsea would go ahead and complete the move they previously came so close to securing.
But a new suitor has emerged: none other than the infamously broke boys of Barcelona. By selling off a percentage of their future television rights, the Catalan club has addressed most of its financial woes. (It’s another matter whether it’s a smart idea to mortgage future income for a short-term payoff, and then splurge the bulk of that money on new signings. . . .) That has allowed the club to enter the fray of a variety of summer transfer sagas: Barcelona has already beaten Chelsea to Raphinha, they lead Chelsea in the hunt for Robert Lewandowski, and they are also competing with Chelsea for Koundé. Since those rumors began in earnest last month, every subsequent report has moved Koundé closer and closer to Barcelona. Chelsea, for its part, has apparently broadened its center back search in the meantime, eyeing Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli and Presnel Kimpembe from Paris Saint-Germain. That last report has now led to further rumors that PSG wants Koundé to replace Kimpembe, though yet another report on Thursday has the latter center back staying in France.
Are These Rumors Bullshit?
OK, so, that’s a lot. In the transfer game, wherever there is smoke, there is usually a big pile of money waiting to be lit on fire. I feel pretty confident in saying that Koundé will be on the move this summer. Sevilla is not an easy club to negotiate with historically, but the amount of money on offer seems too good to pass up this time around. To guess at the lay of the land at the moment: Barcelona seems to be in the lead, while the Blues are still interested but already looking for alternatives in case they lose out. The PSG rumors feel like bullshit at the moment, but if Kimpembe really does move, then the Parisian side would immediately become serious suitors.
What Does He Do?
Jules Koundé is fast. The advantages of that are easy to decipher. Attackers tend to be fast, and defensive lines tend to play very high up the pitch. Fast attackers love to feast on the oceans of open space behind high defensive lines, and fast defenders like Koundé are needed to keep the food out of those attackers’ mouths. Along with his top-end speed, Koundé is savvy with the way he uses that pace. He’s good at reading his opponent’s positioning and measuring his own location accordingly, using his pace to sag off the onrushing attacker in order to be better cut off any dangerous angles, knowing he possesses the speed to make up ground once the attacker makes his move.
This pace also allows the Frenchman to play as an eraser of defensive errors elsewhere on the pitch, which makes him a great pairing for a big and slow aerial presence at the other center back spot. Whereas his partners might attempt to step up and physically block off attackers, Koundé can slot in behind and cover for any mistakes or slow recoveries. That he can also read the game very well for a 23-year-old makes him invaluable as a last gasp defender, and his pace helps paper over the cracks in his game.
On the other side of the ball, Koundé is a calm presence both on and off the ball. He’s not the most creative of center backs when passing—more on this in a bit—but he’s solid in possession, picking out easy outlet passes either to his fellow center back or to the right back. He also invites the opponent’s pressing quite comfortably, given that he is a fantastic dribbler.
Fans of his teams might panic over how close he lets the opposition get to him when carrying the ball, but his skill more often than not lets him break the press with a dribble before finding an open man in the space behind the defending attacker.
He can also do this:
What Doesn’t He Do?
Though he has all the pace in the world, that’s where Koundé’s physical skills stop. His 5-foot-10 height makes him relatively short for the position. He can jump pretty high, which lets him challenge crosses into the box, but there’s only so much one can do with jumping when giving up three or four inches to an attacking aerial threat. His slight build also means he can be overpowered, giving attackers freer reign in the box than they would have against someone a bit bigger. This is probably Koundé’s biggest flaw, since it’s not one he can fix.
He’s also fine, but not great, at creating from the backline. In recent years, center backs who can stroke a perfect diagonal ball out to a wide player have become worth their weight in gold; see Virgil van Dijk and Sergio Ramos for proof. Koundé is more suited to shorter passes that keep the possession moving, since he doesn’t have quite the right distance calibration to make those defense-splitting balls from long range.
Finally, his lack of height makes him a net negative on attacking set pieces. He’s not ever going to be the type of center back that teams will aim for on corners. In fact, his value on set pieces might be higher if he were to stay out of the scrum in the box and look for longer range efforts off rebounds; he’s a pretty good shooter for his position, and his pace and dribbling should allow him to get to those rebounding balls and find enough space to let it rip.
How Does He Fit Into A Top Team?
Herein lies the rub for Koundé. Top teams across Europe have two major and contrasting defensive systems, and Koundé is better suited for one of them by a long shot. Let’s start with the one he is not suited for: a four-defender formation. His lack of physicality makes him a trickier partner in a two-center back formation, where it is more useful to have two players who are strong in the air. In addition, center backs in a back four generally do not have free rein to jaunt forward in attack, which would severely limit the usefulness of Koundé’s pace and dribbling.
A three-defender formation solves most of those issues. In this type of system, Koundé’s strengths are magnified, and his weaknesses minimized. As the right center back in a back three, Koundé can cover lots of ground both forward and backward, letting his right wing back charge up as he pleases, while also providing cover for the central defenders. Koundé would also have more freedom to push high himself as a pseudo-right back, flooding the defense while his two defensive partners slide over to cover. In a three-defender formation, his aerial shortcomings are also less evident so long as the other two center backs take the lead there, leaving him to do what he does best and nothing more.
Who Would Hate This Move?
Expensive transfers tend to shake things up, be it the dressing room, the roster hierarchy, the manager’s position, the fans’ outlook, and the domestic and international landscape. With that it mind, this section tries to determine who stands to lose from the potential transfer.
If Koundé moves to Chelsea, the only people who might hate the move are opposing Premier League teams. His skillset fits perfectly into Thomas Tuchel’s system, and Thiago Silva especially would love to have him as sweeping cover to make up for the Brazilian’s deteriorated pace.
If, instead, Koundé moves to Barcelona, then this becomes a lot more complicated. Barcelona’s current right-sided center back is Ronald Araújo, who is very good. Koundé’s arrival would either create a logjam at that position of two starter-quality players, or force one of them to play on the left, where they are weaker. Along with potentially causing one of Koundé or Araújo to play in an unfamiliar spot, Koundé would also push Andreas Christensen, Eric García, and Gerard Piqué down the depth chart, which would not please them but would probably make Barcelona fans happy.
Either way, Koundé might also hate the move to Barcelona, because it would hamper him from reaching his maximum potential in a three-defender formation . . . unless Xavi decides to throw tradition in the garbage and run a 3-4-3 himself. Either way, the fit at the Catalan giant is not as smooth as at Chelsea.
Important signings are bound to be controversial, so here we include a representative example at each end of the spectrum of sentiments.
Where Does He Rank On The Defector Boom/Bust Scale?
This is only the second edition of Window Shopping, but we already have a glitch in the Defector Boom/Bust Scale. For Koundé, his potential will rely heavily on where he ends up. Even though the Premier League has big and fast strikers that would give him problems, Chelsea’s commitment to the three-defender formation seems perfectly suited for him. I would think that Koundé at Chelsea would end well for everyone involved, giving him a high rating on this scale.
However, if he goes to Barcelona, the bust potential, relative to his price tag, is much higher. As there is no hinting at whether Xavi would rework his system for one player, it’s impossible to really say how good Koundé would be if he remains in La Liga. He has had some good seasons at Sevilla, who play a four-defender formation that turns into a three-at-the-back in possession, so he totally could shine in Barça’s 4-3-3. It’s not as safe a bet as the Chelsea one though, which brings down his score appropriately. For these reasons, Jules Koundé grades at a 34.9 on the Defector Boom/Bust Scale.