Jules Kounde looks set to be on the radar of several elite European clubs this summer (if he wasn’t already).
Ever since Liverpool made Virgil van Dijk their record signing, the cachet of central defenders has soared towards the horizon. With football managers devising their attacks like complex military operations, having a titanic safety net is invaluable. They are few and far between, but Sevilla defender Kounde is being talked about as the next figure to crowbar his way into that category.
Making his top-flight debut with Girondins de Bordeaux in 2017, it took him less than two full seasons to turn into a centre-back that renowned sporting director Monchi deemed talented enough to make him Sevilla’s record signing at €25m. In the three years since, Kounde has been an automatic starter while the team has had one of the most successful spells in their history.
Winning the Europa League at just 21, Kounde has helped Sevilla have finished in the top four of La Liga for three seasons in a row for the first time since the 1950s, and this year Los Nervionenses had the best defence in Spain. Kounde has been a cornerstone upon which the house was built.
He might not be the next Van Dijk, but he might not be too far off it…
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Kounde is short for a modern-day central defender, standing at just 5 foot 10 inches tall. Now that that fact is out of the way, his magnificent leap and Teflon physique ensure that it doesn’t get noticed beyond your first sighting of him. Only two centre-backs in La Liga have won more aerial duels than Kounde (273) since his debut in 2019/20 (Robin Le Normand on 318 and David Garcia on 460). So far his height has not been an issue.
Kounde, like all defenders of the future, is a footballer who happens to be best suited to defending. Sevilla manager Julen Lopetegui has deliberately altered his team to ensure that the Frenchman has the freedom to drive forward, rupturing the opposing lines. There’s little doubt he’s far better as a central defender, but his comfort on the ball and standout pace make sense of Didier Deschamps’ decision to move him to right-back at times, famously featuring as a No. 2 last summer in France’s 2-2 draw against Portugal at Euro 2020.
Ranked against his peers, Kounde (72) has completed more take-ons than any other centre-back in the past three seasons across Europe’s top five leagues. The Frenchman also ranks in the top five for most touches in the opposition box (150), showing just how far forward Lopetegui allows him to push. Self-assured, he has no modesty when it comes to taking players on – usually, he beats them. That shades in some of the picture of Kounde. Neatly sandwiched between the metronomic Toni Kroos and Robin Le Normand, the Frenchman is sixth in La Liga for overall touches this past season (2,516). Proactive and intent on influencing the game regardless of situation and score, he is a force of nature at his best.
Equally going the other way, Kounde will step forward before retreating back. Averaging 6.54 ball recoveries per 90 minutes in La Liga across 2021/22, his style of defending is aggressive and few forwards are capable of withstanding the pressure.
Numbers and graphs aside, there is a warmth to Kounde that draws fans towards him. Something that goes beyond being an aggressive, tough-tackling defender. The faith of the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan is not misplaced. Kounde has personality.
It’s the character that he shows on the ball as much as off it that convinces the observer that he can succeed at any level of football. He sizes up challenges like a boxer and converts pressure into adrenaline, enjoying his work rather than feeling trepidation towards it. As the Champions League continues to demonstrate, perhaps the ability to grow in the face of adversity is football’s finest quality.
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As prefaced, Kounde has most of the traits that make modern-day central defenders such precious commodities. His deficiencies must be sought out.
Perhaps the biggest issue is chaos. Both because it’s where he has been beaten most often this season and it’s the thing he is faced with the least often. Sevilla are notorious for playing with the handbreak on under Lopetegui and as a result, Kounde is rarely asked to reckon with basketball-style encounters. Kounde’s defensive statistics don’t actually stand out, yet that’s mostly a function of the structure in front of him. His athletic talents mean that playing last man or in space are not a problem, he’s just accustomed to having cover. For a period of time, ageing former Manchester City holding midfielder Fernando Reges was amongst Sevilla’s best players, which is symbolic of the fact Lopetegui has emphasised the ability of his defenders. Taking into account Kounde’s instinctive protagonism in all phases of the game, Sevilla have always ensured they are insured behind him.
On the occasions that Sevilla end up trapped within their own box, there are instances where he has been caught out. Or rather, caught between things. Defending byline crosses are not Kounde’s strength, occasionally allowing a clear path past the near post and when the opposition can maintain the heat, at times he gets a little lost in the box. Drawn to the ball naturally, late runs have on occasion caught him unawares too. As with all central defenders, threats that come from in front of him are easier to secure.
What next for Jules Kounde?
There’s enough smoke to suggest that there is at least a little kindling behind the rumours linking him to Chelsea. With central defenders filing out of Stamford Bridge, Kounde makes sense as a candidate to hold down their defence for several years. If Thomas Tuchel wants to employ him on the right side of a back-three, then he would be granting Kounde the perfect role to exploit his numerous attributes. Sevilla are tough negotiators and supposedly turned down offers last summer, shaking their head at anything below his €80m release clause.
On a purely footballing level, it seems farfetched that Sevilla can hang on to him much longer. His flaws are negligible compared to the large positives he provides his team with. It may take a little time to get used to the big open spaces without the ball, yet he’ll no doubt gallop into them when he’s given the round thing he enjoys so much.
Jules Kounde is a little on the small side, but has all the attributes to make you forget it. It’s his large personality which will take him to the highest level sooner or later.