To claim that Franck Kessie is the epitome of the modern midfielder is not an overstatement. And whilst it might be too early to deem him the 'new Yaya Tourè’, as some have already done, he possesses all the qualities required for a breakthrough into the elite of contemporary football.
Originally a central defender, Kessie’s technical and tactical abilities were bound to see his position shift higher up the pitch, where all of his qualities, and not just the defensive ones, could be put to use. His ability to change position so radically is indicative not only of his footballing intelligence, but also of a great personality, as we’ll go on to discuss. In fact, Kessie hasn’t simply undergone the somewhat conventional transition from centre-back to purely defensive midfielder. Instead, the 20-year-old has blossomed into the perfect box-to-box midfielder: a defensive armour for his team as well as a constant goal-scoring threat for the opposition.
Inevitably, the impressive physicality that enabled him to shine as a centre-back has also enabled him to excel in defensive duties in midfield. Standing at 6’3”, he seldom loses an aerial challenge and his strength helps him not only dispossess opponents, but also shield and protect the ball, allowing him to successfully re-initiate possession.
Kessie’s physicality is so overwhelming that it could easily lead one to misguidedly judge him as nothing more than a superb athlete. Be wary of this assumption; he has so much more to offer than just muscle. Firstly, he is a tactician, as highlighted by an unerring ability to read the opposition’s passing game. Aided by his aforementioned athleticism, he is able to capitalise on his intuitions and often succeeds in intercepting passes, seriously hindering the opposition’s ball circulation.
Kessie’s uniqueness lies in his ability to exploit these very same assets not only defensively, but also in his team’s attacking phase. He often uses a mixture of pace and his ball carrying ability to propel himself towards goal and, when embarking on these accelerations, anyone who tries to oppose him experiences the feeling of running into a brick wall.
Starting from a deep-lying midfield position, the youngster’s attributes again prove deadly, as he is able to push through the opposition’s defensive lines, creating potential scoring opportunities either for himself or his teammates. Likewise, when off the ball, Kessie's positional awareness allows him to know exactly where to be and when. Statistically, the Atalanta midfielder has six goals and two assists in 16 Serie A games; impressive considering the positional transformation he underwent only a year ago.
In addition to these qualities, and as opposed to many other talented youngsters, Kessie also boasts heaps of personality. His supreme confidence is illustrated by the fact that, at such a young age, and in his debut season with the club, he is already Atalanta’s designated penalty taker and has stepped up to the spot in some nerve-racking situations. Against both Roma and Torino, two of the most talented sides in Serie A, he scored the decisive penalty to secure 2-1 wins for La Dea with only a few minutes left.
Furthermore, the Ivorian’s skills are such that they can completely alter his team’s performance. This is a player who already consistently influences games and makes the difference, be it defensively or offensively. Whilst many talents are able to impress the public with their technical abilities, which can often be futile in the long run, his impact on the outcome of games is tangible.
At just 20, Kessie has plenty of margin for improvement, though his chances of channeling each and every one of his qualities depends on the team he eventually decides to play for. Regardless, he is already a rounded talent produced by a game that is increasingly demanding of complete midfielders: a deadly fusion of strength and tactical intelligence, with the right amount of personality to top it all off.
For more on Kessie, read Grande 50, The Gentleman Ultra's guide to the finest young talent in Italian football right now.
Words by Federico Manasse: @FedericoManasse
Federico is a columnist, editor and sketch artist for Italian Football Daily. He has also written for the Football Pink.