At 23, Sevilla's Jules Kounde is already one of the most highly rated young centre-backs around. Sevilla only parted with around €25 million to sign the Frenchman from Bordeaux in 2019 but have since turned him into a top player -- and almost every elite club in Europe has scouted him.
Kounde was on Manchester City's radar before they opted to spend €68m to land Benfica's Ruben Dias, while LaLiga's top clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid have monitored him despite being unable to meet the €80m needed for his release clause amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premier League giants Man United moved for Raphael Varane (€41m), Liverpool for Ibrahima Konate (€41.5m) and Arsenal for Ben White (€55m) last summer, but Chelsea looked the closest to landing him before talks broke down at the end of August and were not opened again in January.
Now that the Blues are hamstrung by financial issues after Russian owner Roman Abramovich's assets were frozen, will one of the top clubs in Europe manage to sign him in the coming window? Here's what they would get.
Where has he come from?
Born in Paris, Kounde joined the Bordeaux academy at the age of 15, often captaining his various youth sides before he was given his first team debut in January 2018. From that moment, the then 19-year-old became an undisputed Ligue 1 regular until his transfer to Sevilla at the end of the following season for €25m.
Despite being a dominant and respected name on the French youth scene, Kounde was only properly drawn into the national team circuit at U20 level -- largely due to the plethora of top-quality centre-backs emerging from the same age group. However, he became a regular fixture in the France U21 defence -- sometimes with, or at the expense of, other top prospects such Konate (Liverpool), Benoit Badiashile (Monaco), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich) and Wesley Fofana (Leicester City).
Moreover, Kounde captained the France team at the U21 European Championship last year and even received a late call-up to the senior side's Euro 2020 squad. At the Euros, Kounde was handed his competitive Les Bleus debut in the 2-2 draw against Portugal coming in to replace the suspended Benjamin Pavard at right-back. Since then he's worked his way into Didier Deschamps' plans -- he has accumulated nine senior caps -- to the point of being on the verge of regular status.
The Frenchman has also been steadily linked with a move to the Premier League. In 2020, a €55m offer from Manchester City was reportedly rejected by Sevilla, while an offer from Tottenham a year later (€30m plus defender Davinson Sanchez) was accepted before Kounde refused to move to a club not playing Champions League football.
Kounde is very much the modern defender personified. Most top-level centre-backs nowadays are expected to be comfortable on the ball and to take part in more than just the defensive side of the game, yet he's seemingly set new standards when it comes to constructive, creative centre-back involvement.
At 5-foot-10 he is a bit shorter than usual for his position, but compensates with superb agility, which also makes him capable of featuring as a right full-back or even right-wing back (though he's hardly had the chance to try the latter, having predominantly played in a back four). Given his varied, impressive skillset he could even play as a holding (or even roaming) central midfielder, if required.
There's style and there's substance. Few other centre-backs are as engaging to watch as Kounde, especially when he sets off on attacking runs with the ball at his feet in central areas of the pitch. Those runs, obviously aimed at creating a numerical advantage higher up the pitch, can still come as a surprise and be a source of havoc among the opposition.
Kounde's excellent ability on the ball makes him extremely useful in starting attacks, either by picking out a midfielder centrally or by hitting a pinpoint crossfield ball out to the left winger to gain possession high up the pitch. His wonderful ball-carrying and technical skills also make him an attacking weapon in his own right. He can deliver decent crosses from deep positions as well as taking part in combination play in and around the penalty area (his Copa del Rey goal against Barcelona is a fine example).
Sure, a centre-back breaking forward to take part in the attacking build-up is nothing new, but with his continuous eagerness to set up overlaps and one-twos, Kounde is probably the closest you'll find to perfecting the art. Furthermore, his average of 1.85 dribbles per game as a central defender almost exclusively playing in a back four offers further proof of his adventurous style, just as his smooth ball control also comes in handy when evading the opponent's pressing game.
While the elegant Frenchman still collects most praise for the ball-playing side of his game, he also excels at the defensive aspect. So far this season he won an average of 12 challenges per game (68% success rate) plus he regained possession in the opposing half at an unusually high rate. His pace, acceleration and agility also make him a difficult adversary in sprint duels.
Though his relative lack of height is often pointed out as a weakness, Kounde's athleticism and spring make him competitive in aerial challenges as well (though his central defensive partner at Sevilla, Diego Carlos, tended to take care of the more physical opposing centre-forwards). Additionally, he's an alert, quick-thinker who rarely commits errors (or fouls) or is caught napping.
Kounde's rare qualities (as described above) for a defender make for certain obvious trade-offs, yet every centre-back has their own style. While logically he might not be as dominating in the air as Virgil van Dijk, sport the presence of Kalidou Koulibaly or have the assertiveness in the box of Giorgio Chiellini, Kounde already has what it takes to succeed at the very highest level.
If Chelsea resolve their ownership issues by the summer, they may come back with a bid in (especially with Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen set to leave.) In such an event it would be intriguing to see him playing in a back three -- which he did successfully for France against the Ivory Coast at the weekend -- or a system which would allow him even more attacking freedom. In that sense he'd be a perfect fit playing to the right (or left) of Thiago Silva in Thomas Tuchel's backline.
He is also able to play right-back, so a team like Man United or Barcelona would benefit from his versatility.