Napoli's first summer signing was a piece of business that seemed fairly risky up front. Looking abroad outside of Italy, the found themselves a young French defender plying his trade in Belgium, who showed loads of talent, but had also had some issues with consistency and a lack of refinement in his game.
Still, Rafa Benitez and Riccardo Bigon saw something in Kalidou Koulibaly that they felt their coaching staff could mold in to a top-shelf defender, so they gave KRC Genk a little bit more money than people thought they should to get them to part with one of their squad's crown jewels. With that, they had a new defender that they needed, and a new project, one that could reward them handsomely if it worked out.
So far, so good.
Koulibaly opened a lot of eyes during his pre-season performances, dominating the back line against PAOK before more than holding his own against Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. Then once the real matches started, he kept his place in the lineup and was one of the few bright spots against Athletic Bilbao, and has put in three impressive shifts in Napoli's matches since then.
It's not being dramatic to say that Koulibaly has been Napoli's best defender so far this season. He's impressed both physically and technically, and despite being just 23 and not widely experienced, he's frequently been a settling influence on the back line in shakier moments. For his part, Koulibaly seems to be enjoying the whole experience, telling Radio Kiss Kiss that "[f]or a defender, Italian football is the pinnacle."
That doesn't mean that he's going to start resting on his laurels, though. "It has been a big change for me. In Italy, you must be prepared tactically," Koulibaly went on. "I realised against Genoa that if you miss an interception, the other team immediately scores." That missed interception in Napoli's first league match has probably been the only real glaring mistake the Frenchman has made so far, and based on that quote it's a mistake he's taken to heart and learned from, which is vital for a young player.
Koulibaly has played with a ton of confidence, helping him come up in a lot of big moments for the club so far this season. That's something he attributes directly to Benitez. "[Rafa] is giving me great confidence. He helped me integrate into the team, as well as with my new teammates, and he has also helped me settle in Naples because it is a new country for me. I know it's a big club and I must strive to give 100 per cent for the fans. I'm glad they like my style of play."
Based on the early results, the fans are going to keep on loving Koulibaly's style of play. He's been good, he's been eager, and he's got the talent to do great things for Napoli. Watching his journey so far has been a treat, and we're still very early in the ride. If Koulibaly can keep this up, he won't just be able to reach the pinnacle of defenders in Italy, he can challenge the best defenders in all of Europe. Good luck, kid. This entire fanbase is pulling for you.