The African Football Aficionados who remember Franck Kessie’s Ivory Coast debut will remember a domestic-based centre-back, then of Stella Club, who was partnered with Serge Aurier against Sierra Leone. Right!? Because this, like the difference between Kalu Uche, Uche Kalu, Ikechukwu Uche and Uche Okechukwu, is the sort of terrific trivia that African Football Aficionados remember.
The inclusion of Kessie back then was part of Herve Renard’s trialling of different defenders in the hope that a partnership sticks after the defensive disarray in their ranks. Kessie, then just 17 years of age, had been fast-tracked from the U17 team to the senior team after an impressive 2013 World Cup where he captained them to the quarter-finals. Initially impressive outings on his debut versus Sierra Leone and in front of an intimidating Stade des Martyrs in Kinshasa against DR Congo underlined the promise, but, eventually, the incompleteness to Kessie’s game would come at a cost.
In the return fixture versus DR Congo at Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny his rash decision-making saw a straight red card. That disadvantage that afternoon resulted in Ivory Coast losing 4-3 and, with that defeat, shedding their proud, 10-year unbeaten home record. More importantly, it put severe pressure on his nation to make it to the Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea, which they eventually did.
Kessie wouldn’t be seen again under Renard’s tenure, paving the way for others to be drafted as the Frenchman hoped something – anything – would stick. The beneficiaries would be the then unknown young duo of Eric Bailly and Wilfried Kanon as the defence was reconstructed to a back 5, with Kolo Toure anchoring. The rest is history.
As his countrymen were chasing glory in January 2015, Kessie was acclimatising to a new country after Atalanta swooped for his services. His first season at the club saw no first-team appearances; just one paltry naming on the bench as an unused substitute.
When he was loaned out to Cesena for the second season the alarm bells started to ring. True, Kessie was, and still is, young, but a drop to the division below can hint you’re not quite ready for the top level and there is a danger you can remain there, regressing until you end up in the backwaters of football. Fortunately for Kessie, he landed in the hands of a good man, the well-renowned Massimo Drago, and at youth-focused club.
Crucially, in Drago he landed under the gaze of someone who can identify potential and harness it. As a centre back, Kessie’s eagerness to get involved with the play always saw frequent dashes deep into midfield. When he began his spell on loan Drago reassessed his attributes and thought he would be function better as a defensive midfielder with the carte blanche to roam forward.
That turned out to be the making of Franck Kessie. A successful 2015/2016 season, where he was almost ever-present, saw him refine him game technically and become a more complete player, adding open-play goals into his repertoire. Upon his return to Atalanta his improvement was indefatigable to the management staff and he was finally deemed first-team-ready by coach Gian Piero Gasperini.
And Kessie has shown that readiness and more. He has been on the frontline of their march to 6th in Serie A by the winter break, scoring 7 goals from midfield in the process; with the penalty-taking duties, just like his days in the U17 Ivory Coast team, assigned to him despite his tender age.
Unsurprisingly, the elite clubs of Europe are now hot on his heels. Ready-made to fill an up-for-grabs midfield position for his national team, a recall promptly followed, too. And with the likes of Cheick Doukoure and Ismael Diomande not good enough to cement themselves as starters, he has leapfrogged them with ease and rapidly established himself as a pivotal player.
The transformation into a midfielder, and the fact that he is Ivorian, have brought comparisons that he is the ‘Next Yaya Toure’. When he was a defender these comparisons were mute. He wasn’t even the next Kolo Toure or, given his rashness, Sol Bamba or Blaise Kouassi.
As Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer knows, ultimately you can’t replace a player of Yaya Toure’s attributes with a like-for-like replacement. What you can do is try someone a little different, and hope their merits diminish the loss of the irreplaceable. That’s because Yaya Toure is a genuine African great, a player who, at his zenith, was just as much a playmaker to rival the best of them as he was box-to-box. Though he has a good range of passing, Kessie isn’t quite able to control the tempo of games with his passing as Toure did.
That said, there is a big similarity between Kessie and Yaya Toure. Kessie’s forward surges, which have always been a feature of his game, are reminiscent of Toure’s though he may not have as much acceleration, and he uses more of his body to burst away from opponents. What is different to the current Kessie is he has now added more muscle to make him even harder to stop compared to the slimmer one we saw around 2 years ago.
One of the common criticisms of Yaya Toure was his unwillingness to do the uglier duties of midfield; the tracking back, the general coverage of yards, relishing one-on-one duels with opposition midfielders, among other things. His stamina was also an issue – he was visibly tired on many occasions after combat in the Ivorian midfield; in the AFCON 2012 final he was taken off when the game was far from decided.
With Kessie that’s not the case – while he has the benefit of age being on his side, his stamina is also one of his biggest strengths. Whereas Toure usually stuck to the central areas of the pitch, Kessie can be seen in central areas as well as wider areas, either to stop attacks or instigate ones of his own, or both simultaneously.
Kessie’s endurance for the duration of games make him not just one of the first names in Dussuyer’s team but, with walking yellow card Serey Die next to him, it is inconceivable to imagine him being substituted for fresher legs. Kessie will be hoping his countrymen match his durability and go all the way.