Having secured the signature of Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, Arsene Wenger and Arsenal are moving onto other targets. According to Jeremy Wilson of the Telegraph, a centre-back is next on the agenda—with Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly atop the list.
The need for a new defender is obvious. Although Laurent Koscielny has excelled as the club’s first-choice centre-back, neither Per Mertesacker nor Gabriel Paulista convinced last season as his regular partner. Mertesacker is 31 and has just over a year remaining on his Arsenal contract, while Gabriel appears too impetuous and volatile to be relied upon. Calum Chambers is on the books, but he lacks the requisite experience to play week in and week out.
Koulibaly, however, could be the man to play alongside Koscielny. Although Gonzalo Higuain’s goals made him Napoli’s most eye-catching performer in 2015/16, Koulibaly’s contribution at the back was arguably equally vital. The team conceded just 32 goals in their 38 Serie A games, and Koulibaly has been hailed as integral to the team’s success.
It was not always thus. When he first arrived in Naples back in 2014, he struggled. Koulibaly struggled to adapt to life in Serie A and appeared destined to be considered a flop.
However, he showed his resilience by recovering from a sticky start to become a cornerstone of the side. That’s the first of the attributes that will have attracted Wenger—Koulibaly has already shown the mental strength the Frenchman holds so dear.
He’s a superb athlete too. The giant Senegal international stands 6'5", towering over most centre-forwards. In physical terms, he appears a perfect fit for English football. That size is reflected in his aerial ability—according to Squawka, he won 81 headed duels over the course of the season. Mertesacker, who stands an inch taller, won just 52 in the 2015/16 Premier League campaign.
That’s not to suggest Koulibaly is just a brute. Over the course of last season, his technical development was startling. He’s becoming as good with his feet as he is in the challenge. A passing accuracy of 86 per cent compares favourably with most Arsenal players. Like Koscielny, he is also capable of marauding runs up the field. Last season, he succeeded in an incredible 88 per cent of his 17 attempted take-ons.
Koulibaly's power and poise would fit well alongside Koscielny's speed and aggression. At 24, the Napoli man is at an ideal age—he could be an Arsenal centre-half for the next decade.
The most ringing endorsement comes from Sky Italia pundit and former AC Milan midfielder Zvonimir Boban. According to Adam Digby for FourFourTwo, he said of the centre-half’s performances this season:
Koulibaly's improvement isn't notable, it’s extreme. For me, he's among the best in the world and he can still improve. He's matured in everything; character, technique... he now comes out with the ball in such an impeccable way and is always physically dominant. I think Napoli have uncovered a champion.
In Arsenal’s quest to become champions of England next season, Koulibaly could certainly be a useful addition. With Xhaka already on board, it’s time for Arsenal to step up their efforts to land the towering defender.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.
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