As is often the case at the ceremony when a club unveils their new signing, the most interesting thing said when Barcelona paraded Jules Kounde to their training ground on Monday was not uttered by the player. Instead, it was said of him.
It happened when Mateu Alemany, Barcelona’s new director of football and the ‘get-it-done’ guy who makes sure the club’s relations are now solid, smart and strategic, insisted on returning to the question of find out why the €55m defender wasn’t already a Chelsea player. Alemany pointed out that he repeatedly told Kounde (via his agent Jonathan Kebe) that “…if you want things sorted quickly, then take one of those other big offers you have, but stop calling me cause I ‘no news…”
The Barca representative highlighted how brutally complicated it was for the club to negotiate the economic ‘levers’ with Sixth Street and Socios.com, worth several hundred million euros, which left the club liquid and greedy for spending. He looked into the massive rows of media to find Kede, who was sitting there with part of Kounde’s family, and asked, “What was that, Jonathan?” two months?”
Alemany has made it clear that Kounde chose Barcelona as his destination more than two months ago and despite weeks of the club not being able to give him hope or encouragement, the 23-year-old has stubbornly resisted Chelsea and had patiently waited for the green light from Camp Nou. Under normal circumstances, a France international like Kounde would now be a mainstay in the rebuilding of Chelsea following the departure of Roman Abramovich. But he wanted to stay in La Liga, he wanted to join Barcelona and, above all, he wanted to play for Xavi.
At Koundé, the Catalan coach nabbed a very talented defender who: knows La Liga like the back of his hand; fits perfectly with the playing philosophy of his new club; may play in a few positions depending on formation; broke the trend of young and excellent LaLiga footballers who could not resist the call of the Premier League, and whose agent has just concluded a fabulous contract of 80 million euros to bring Aurélien Tchouameni at Real Madrid.
It’s a victory for the club and the coach, but also for La Liga. No success for another Premier League predator this time.
I’ve met and interviewed Kounde a few times, and he’s quite the character. For example, it may not be a global expression, but in the UK we grew up with ‘tough’ footballers described with the phrase ‘he would drag his grandmother if it helped his team win’ .
Come on, Koundé… well, almost. He previously admitted to Onze Mundial in his native France: “My mother had to put up with a lot when I went through a difficult phase as a child. My home team was a bit of a disaster, we lost a lot and I I couldn’t tolerate that. It drove me crazy and after a bad game I became a nightmare at home. I would be in a bad mood all weekend: atrocious behavior. I went into such a rage that I ended up kicking me poor mom.
“Eventually she sought professional advice and the doctor said ‘give it back. If he kicks you, kick him. He will calm down soon! That period didn’t last long, but it wasn’t great at the time.”
These days, Koundé is far from being a hothead. Note that despite being a fast and aggressive, see-ball-win-ball type player, he has only been cautioned 26 times in 227 club and international appearances. Few splits and almost no dissent; his errors of judgment are rare. This is a truly remarkable statistic. Nevertheless, Barcelona fans will recall that one of his two red cards in Spain was for throwing the ball at Jordi Alba in a stormy and very physical 1-1 draw at Sevilla, when the left-back elbowed and shouldered twice in short. Succession.
It is a “score” that should now be sorted quickly. Alba likes a serious competitor…as long as they wear the same color shirt as him.
Koundé’s other red card? When Espanyol’s Javi Puado handled him and shot him four times from 15 yards and Kounde tried to push him away. It was an awfully sweet expulsion, but each time it showed a little remnant of the kid who used to kick his mother’s shins.
The defender finally decided enough was enough at Sevilla in April when Los Rojiblancos, trailing 2-0 at the break against eventual champions Madrid, collapsed to an ultra-dramatic 3-2 loss in injury time. Kounde hammered his team for ‘throwing a good first half in the trash’ and criticized Sevilla’s ‘lack of character and personality’ in the second half. Harsh words, even if accurate, but career changing. It was time to go.
He’s a normally serene, fun-loving guy, curious about life, polyglot and absolutely obsessed with music thanks in part to his father whom he barely knew as a talented drummer. “My mum bought me a little drum set which… how to say… was more of a toy. I remember spending so much time with it. It drove my mum a little crazy because it was really loud and that I was I think this year, or next, I’m going to start taking piano lessons because my mother played the piano and it’s a classy instrument.
Don’t be fooled by Kounde, though: he’s cultured, but tough, especially if he detects below-average standards or attitudes. It’s a trait hammered into him. He previously explained where this request came from: “To join Bordeaux [Kounde’s first senior club] It was hard at first — my shyness and withdrawal didn’t help. My coach, Jean-Luc Dogon, worked very hard for me to open up and bring more aggression to my game. I’m really grateful to him.”
Several Bordeaux coaches have forged the guy Barcelona have just signed. “Jocelyn Gourvennec was a tough man,” said Koundé. “I could miss a pass while a teammate missed two or three, but Gourvennec would fall on me like a ton of bricks and let the other guy go. It was very unfair at the time, but it got me definitely left a strong work ethic plus a determination to never let go of the throttle.”
I was working for LaLiga TV with Chelsea, Uruguay and Real Zaragoza legend Gustavo Poyet, himself a former Bordeaux coach, the day Sevilla signed Kounde. Off camera, Gus immediately told me: “Fantastic kid, he loves to go on adventures on the pitch, but as long as he continues with his attitude and willingness to defend as well as attack, he will become a fabulous player. .” He was right.
Kounde remembers this fate: “Gustavo really believed in me and gave me great confidence in my own abilities. He wanted us to love everything about football, to take risks, to play creatively and to we loved being part of a group. Possibly the best coach I’ve ever had!”
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What follows for Koundé is a period of experimentation and, in a sense, survival of the fittest. In their last matches, the 23-year-old hasn’t been an automatic choice for Didier Deschamps’ brilliant France side, at least not when Blues play four behind. But last year, playing 90 minutes in the Nations League semi-final victory over Belgium and the final win over Spain in a three-man back line, Koundé was Deschamps’ first choice.
Xavi, theoretically, now has to choose between Gerard Pique, Eric Garcia, Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen, Frenkie de Jong (assuming he stays, anyway) and Kounde to see who starts at centre-back. It promises to be a battle royale just to get a starting spot. Will there be four in defense (so only two central defenders)? Or is Xavi planning a 3-4-3 in which Kounde emerges as the perfect combination of winger/centre-back demanded by this formation?
Again, this kid’s road to success will depend almost as much on his hard work in France as it does on his maturation in Seville.
“Drilling in, I was used as a right-back when I had always played as a centre-back before,” he once said. “At first I was a total disaster. I remember torturous training sessions practicing crosses towards the attackers, with me sending the ball all over the place. I would end up crossing it behind them or making it too low or too high – it was catastrophic!I used to go home completely miserable.
Warning: he’s only provided four assists in his entire club career, but he’s scored 13 times.
The last time Barcelona signed a music-loving, exuberantly talented right-back from Sevilla in their 20s and left Chelsea without a guy they thought they had convinced to come to London was Dani Alves 16 years ago. It’s a lot to measure up to, but equally, it’s something Kounde has to aim for. Doubt him if you wish, but be prepared to swallow your words.