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As is often true during the ceremony when a club unveils its new signing, the most interesting thing said when Barcelona paraded Jules Kounde at their training ground on Monday wasn’t uttered by the player. Instead, it was said about him.
It came when Mateu Alemany, Barcelona’s new director of football and “get-it-done” guy who ensures the club’s dealings are now robust, intelligent and strategic, insisted on going back to the question as to why the €55 million defender wasn’t already a Chelsea player. Alemany emphasised that he’d several times told Kounde (via his agent Jonathan Kebe) that “… if you want things sorted out quickly, then take one of those other big offers you’ve got, but stop calling me because I’ve got no news …”
Barca’s representative was emphasising how brutally complicated it has been for the club to negotiate the economic “levers,” with Sixth Street and Socios.com, worth several hundred million euros, that have left the club liquid and hungry to spend. He looked out into the massed ranks of media to find Kede, who was seated there with some of Kounde’s family, and asked: “What was it, Jonathan? Did you phone me every single day, or only every two days, for the last two months?”
Alemany made crystal clear that Kounde had chosen Barcelona as his destination over two months ago and despite weeks of the club being unable to give him any hope or encouragement, the 23-year-old had stubbornly resisted Chelsea and waited patiently for the green light from Camp Nou. Under normal circumstances, a France international like Kounde would by now be a pillar of Chelsea’s rebuild following Roman Abramovich’s departure. But he wanted to stay in LaLiga, he wanted to join Barcelona and, above all, he wanted to play for Xavi.
In Kounde, the Catalan coach has grabbed a seriously talented defender who: knows LaLiga inside out; fits his new club’s playing philosophy to perfection; can play in a few positions depending on formation; has broken the trend of young, excellent LaLiga footballers who’ve been unable to resist the call of the Premier league, and whose agent has only just completed a fabulous €80m deal to take Aurelien Tchouameni to Real Madrid.
It is a win for the club and the coach, but also for LaLiga. No success for another Premier League predator this time.
I’ve met and interviewed Kounde a few times, and he is quite the character. For example, it might not be a worldwide expression, but in the United Kingdom we grew up with “hard-men” footballers being described with the phrase “he’d slide tackle his grandmother if it helped his team win.”
Step forward, Kounde … well, nearly. He’s previously admitted to Onze Mundial in his native France: “My mum had to put up with a lot when I went through a difficult phase as a kid. My local team was a bit of a disaster, we lost a lot, and I couldn’t tolerate that. It drove me crazy and after a bad game, I’d be a nightmare at home. I’d be in a foul mood all weekend: atrocious behaviour. I got into such a rage that I ended up kicking my poor mum.
“Eventually she sought professional advice and the doctor told her ‘do it back to him. If he kicks you, kick him back. He’ll soon calm down!’ That period didn’t last long, but it wasn’t great at the time.”
These days, Kounde is far from a hothead. Take note that despite being a fast, aggressive, “see-the-ball-win-the-ball” type of player, he’s been booked a mere 26 times in 227 club and international matches. Few lunges and almost zero dissent; his misjudgements are rare. That’s a properly remarkable stat. Nevertheless, Barcelona fans will recall that one of his two red cards in Spain was for chucking the ball at Jordi Alba during a heated and very physical 1-1 draw in Sevilla, when the left-back elbowed and shoulder-barged him twice in short succession.
It’s a “score” that should now be quickly sorted. Alba loves a gritty competitor … just so long as they’re wearing the same colour shirt as him.
Kounde’s other red card? When Espanyol‘s Javi Puado man-handled and tugged him back four times over 15 metres and Kounde tried to push him off. It was a terribly soft expulsion, but on each occasion, it showed a little remnant of the kid who used to kick his mum’s shins.
The defender finally decided that enough was enough at Sevilla back in April when Los Rojiblancos, 2-0 up at the break against eventual champions Madrid, collapsed to an ultra-dramatic 3-2 defeat in added time. Kounde hammered his team for having “tossed a good first half in the bin” and criticised Sevilla’s “lack of character and personality” in the second half. Harsh words, even if accurate, but career-changing. It was time to go.
This is a guy who is normally serene, fun, curious about life, multilingual and absolutely obsessed with music partly thanks to the dad he barely knew being a talented drummer. “My mum bought me a little drum kit that… how do I put it… was more of a toy. I remember spending so much time with it. It drove my mum slightly crazy because it was really noisy and I was constantly playing it. I think that this year, or next, I’ll 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-par standards or attitudes. It’s a trait that was hammered into him. He’s previously explained where this demand came from: “Joining Bordeaux [Kounde’s first senior club] was tough at first — me being shy and withdrawn didn’t help. My coach, Jean-Luc Dogon, worked really hard to get me to open up and bring more aggression to my game. I’m really grateful to him.”
Various coaches at Bordeaux forged the guy that Barcelona just brought in. “Jocelyn Gourvennec was a hard man,” said Kounde. “I might miss one pass while a teammate would miss two or three, but Gourvennec would come down on me like a ton of bricks and let the other guy off. It felt very unfair at the time, but it definitely left me with a strong work ethic plus a determination never to take my foot off the gas.”
I was working for LaLiga TV with Chelsea, Uruguay and Real Zaragoza legend Gustavo Poyet, himself a former Bordeaux coach, the day that Sevilla signed Kounde. Off-camera, Gus immediately told me: “Fantastic kid, he just loves to go for adventures up the pitch, but so long as he continues with his attitude and his willingness to defend as well as attack, he’ll become a fabulous player.” He was right.
Kounde recalls that spell: “Gustavo really believed in me and gave me huge confidence in my own abilities. He wanted us to love everything about football, to take risks, play creatively and enjoy being part of a group. Maybe the best coach I ever had!”
What’s next for Kounde is a period of experimentation and, in a sense, a survival of the fittest. Over their last few matches, the 23-year-old hasn’t been an automatic choice for Didier Deschamps’ brilliant France side, at least not when Les Bleus play four at the back. But last year, playing 90 minutes in the Nations League semifinal win over Belgium and final victory over Spain in a three-man back line, Kounde 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 over who starts at centre-back. It promises to be a battle royale just to get a starting place. Will it be four at the back (so only two central defenders)? Or is Xavi planning a 3-4-3 in which Kounde profiles as the perfect wing-back/centre-back amalgam demanded by that formation?
Once again, this kid’s route to success will depend almost as much on his hard yards in France as it will his maturation at Sevilla.
“Breaking through, I was used at right-back when I’d previously always played as a central defender,” he once said. “At first, I was a total disaster. I remember tortuous training sessions practising crosses to the forwards, with me sending the ball all over the place. I’d end up crossing it behind them or making it too low or too high — it was catastrophic! I used to go home utterly miserable.”
Take note: he’s only given four assists across his entire club career, but he’s scored 13 times.
Last time Barcelona signed a 20-something, music-loving, exuberantly talented, right-sided defender from Sevilla and left Chelsea without a guy they thought they had convinced to come to London, it was Dani Alves 16 years ago. It’s a lot to live up to, but equally, it’s something for Kounde to aim at. Doubt him if you choose, but get ready to eat your words.