Arsenal

Kessié needs Premier League move to fulfil world-class potential

 • by Matt Gault
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The summer of 2017 was a mega one for AC Milan. Then under Vincenzo Montella, the Rossoneri splashed out £160million on ten players as part of an ambitious revamp following a disappointing sixth-place finish in Serie A.

Headlined by the £35million capture of Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci, the recruitment drive included the acquisitions of André Silva, Andrea Conti, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Lucas Biglia, Mateo Musacchio and Ricardo Rodríguez.

Franck Kessié, Nikola Kalinić and Fabio Borini were also signed on loan.

However, as with most assaults on the transfer market, results were mixed.

Bonucci flopped at San Siro and was shipped back to Juventus 12 months later. Silva was sent on loan to Sevilla after failing to make an impact, while Conti’s Rossoneri career has been ravaged by two serious knee injuries, restricting him to just six starts in two seasons.

Çalhanoğlu has nine goals and 14 assists 67 appearances but may still be headed for pastures new this summer.

Following the Turkey international out the exit door could be Kessié. The 22-year-old, who is coming to the end of his two-year loan deal at Milan, has been linked with a move to Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. West Ham United are also said to be interested in the Ivorian.

Kessié arrived from Atalanta on loan but included in the deal was an obligation for Milan to buy him outright for £28.5million. Now, with Financial Fair Play breaches and a potential European competition ban hanging over their heads, they are keen to cash in.

There is a clear rationale behind the reported interest of the Premier League trio. Gunners boss Unai Emery is keen on bolstering his midfield options following Aaron Ramsey‘s departure to Juventus. Tottenham, meanwhile, have yet to replace Mousa Dembélé, who left for China in January, and Manuel Pellegrini wants to a central midfielder at West Ham as he looks to return the club to European football.

Playing style

A physical, energetic midfielder with an eye for goal, Kessié has been virtually ever-present in Milan’s starting XI since arriving in 2017, starting 37 Serie A games in 2017/18 and 34 in 2018/19.

He has been directly involved in 17 goals (12 goals, five assists) during that period and has established himself as one of Serie A’s most accomplished ball-winners, having won possession 213 times throughout 2018/19 (more than any other Milan player).

Kessié started out this season playing alongside Biglia and Giacomo Bonaventura in Gennaro Gattuso’s 4-3-3. However, injuries to both opened a path into the starting XI for Chelsea loanee Tiémoué Bakayoko. The Frenchman often sat deep as Kessié and Çalhanoğlu – and later Lucas Paquetá, who arrived in January – influenced the game higher up the pitch.

As you can see below, Kessié was most active in the space 30-40 yards from the opponent’s goal whereas Bakayoko was much more active in Milan’s half.

And Kessié has proven effective at finding space in the danger area. His opener in the win against Roma in August came via him eluding his man at the far post to fire home Rodríguez’s searching cross.

His next goal, against Sassuolo, arrived at the end of a lung-busting from deep within his own half, eventually firing a left-footed drive into the corner. His strike in the 3-0 defeat of Empoli was a deft dink over the goalkeeper’s head having been slipped through by Samu Castillejo, while his effort on the final day of the season against SPAL showed great composure, shifting onto his left in the box before rifling a shot high into the net.

His contributions extend far beyond goalscoring, though. An indefatigable engine in midfield, Kessié covers a lot of ground, both in an attempt to break up the opponent’s play and join Milan’s attacks. His speed and aggression make him an effective presser, often charging towards the opponent after a pass from full-back into the centre.

Indeed, he is often the one mopping up midfield battles and sliding in on 50:50 challenges. While he can sometimes be rash, his record of 28 tackles won from 45 attempted suggests he is, more often than not, an effective destroyer.

Who would he suit best?

Still young, it’s easy to see Kessié flourishing under the guidance of Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino. A natural powerhouse, Kessié is an intelligent footballer who can reach an elite level with refinement, particularly to his passing (he completed only one of seven through balls last season).

That seems like a task well-suited to Pochettino’s man-management skills. Having missed out on Champions League glory, the Spurs manager could use a promising box-to-box midfielder to partner Moussa Sissoko or Harry Winks.

West Ham seem to be linked with every midfielder going. The Hammers are reportedly in talks with Marseille’s Morgan Sanson having also explored a possible bid for André Gomes. Given Arsenal and Spurs’ interest, though, it’s unlikely they will clinch Kessié’s signature unless the North London duo drop out of the running.

Emery, meanwhile, needs a central midfielder to fill the void left by Ramsey’s exit. Whereas Pochettino plays a 4-2-3-1, Emery has adopted a 3-4-1-2 to accommodate strike duo Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Within that system, Ramsey partnered Lucas Torreira, Mattéo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka; Kessié would provide fierce competition to all three.

Kessié isn’t Ramsey, who was known more for his intricate playmaking sensibilities, but the Ivorian would certainly offer the Gunners a powerful option to partner Torreira – Arsenal’s most recent successful Serie A import – in midfield.

A player with great potential, top coaching will take Kessié to the highest level. There’s no doubt he would receive that under Emery, Pochettino or Pellegrini. He’s just one of several intriguing possibilities for Premier League clubs in the weeks ahead.

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