Tanguy Kouassi's French Connection
French football has a knack for developing and producing talented central defenders. The list of options France have at centre-back is already filled with stellar names, many of which would start in most European teams: Raphaël Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Aymeric Laporte, and Presnel Kimpembe being amongst the current top picks.
However, the list of those waiting in the wings is even longer: Kurt Zouma, Dayot Upamecano, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Clément Lenglet, William Saliba, and Wesley Fofana complete a selection pool that boasts serious depth; even Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernández are contenders at centre-back, despite being preferred in wider positions.
The extent of the options available is mesmerising. And there is yet another name who will soon be challenging for a place on the list: that of 18-year-old Tanguy Kouassi.
Paris Saint-Germain’s teenage centre-back made his debut against Montpellier in December 2019. While he made only six appearances for the club this season, they presented more than enough evidence of his immense ability as a defender to impress onlookers.
The academy graduate is out of contract this summer and it is all but confirmed that he will be leaving the perennial French champions and signing for equally perennial Bundesliga winners, FC Bayern München.
When you’re a coveted 18-year-old defender, is it more favourable to move to a club that will guarantee you playing time, or one that has a strong developmental structure in place? A number of clubs were interested in signing the French central defender but it seems Bayern Munich have won that race – a club that offers the best of both of the above requirements.
They have handled the development of younger players in the current first-team core – Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry, and Alphonso Davies – extremely well.
DAYOT UPAMECANO's Style of Play
At first glance, Kouassi is a blend of old and new. At 6’2”, he is one of the taller centre-backs you’ll see roaming the pitch, but his size does not detract from the class he oozes in the role of a ball-playing centre-back, nor his ability to progress play effectively.
Kouassi’s development in Thomas Tuchel’s 4-4-2 shape has seen him mainly used in a two-man defensive line. Playing alongside Thiago Silva or Kimpembe, Kouassi assumes the role of ball-player and initiator in possession, while he is key in providing cover when defending. He is not the quickest player, so has to rely on good positioning and height to compensate for his lack of speed.
Paris Saint-Germain are a possession-based team, so Kouassi has improved his ability to progress the ball forward while learning to deal with teams trying to penetrate his defensive line on the counter-attack.
thE dEFENSIVE pHASE
Kouassi’s defensive positioning is the foundation of his defensive abilities. His spatial awareness allows him to defend diligently and cover spaces behind him, while his anticipation puts him one step ahead of his attacker. In the defensive third, he is always trying to step in ahead of the opposition player to dispossess them and win the ball back for his team.
Given his size, most players struggle to match his strength – so speed becomes essential for opposition attackers trying to get the better of him. If the teenager wants to reach the heights of his team-mate and former captain Silva, then he needs to develop an understanding of selective decision making.
The French central defender is not quick, and if an opposition player in possession turns away from him, they are more than likely to win a foul or get in behind.
According to StatsBomb data, Kouassi averages 10 pressures per 90 minutes (number of times a player has applied pressure on an opposing player who is receiving, carrying, releasing the ball) with a success rate of 4.18 pressures per 90. This statistic shows his age: he is eager to impress and be aggressive.
It’s an impressive quality, but one that needs to be reined in. Another key metric is his pressure win percentage of 42%, which is one of the best rates in the league. All of this, of course, must be caveated by the small sample size of 452 league minutes.
thE Attacking pHASE
Kouassi’s most obvious trait is his height. Though not exactly a physical specimen, Kouassi is tall enough to tower over most Ligue 1 attackers and has an incredible jump, making him especially useful at set-pieces.
Teams in Ligue 1 look to soak up pressure and hit Paris Saint-Germain with route-one football and counter-attacks when the opportunity arises. This is where Kouassi’s heading and positioning ability comes into play: he is able to time his jumps well and win most of his aerial battles.
What Kouassi lacks in speed he makes up in the air, with a healthy aerial duels success rate of 73.3% and averaging 2.20 per 90 minutes – not bad for an 18-year-old who is yet to fully develop physically. Long balls into PSG’s high line give Kouassi time to adjust his position and allow the defensive line to re-organise themselves.
Offensively, Kouassi is a menace in the opposition penalty area. Often, he out jumps his marker and takes full advantage of his frame; the first of his two goals against Amiens was a classic example of his aerial ability in an offensive set-piece situation, the French teenager overcame the two markers between him and the ball’s trajectory to muscle his way to the ball and head PSG back into the game.
Fitting Tanguy Kouassi in at Bayern
It will be interesting to see how Kouassi fits into Hansi Flick’s current Bayern München system and what his immediate and long-term future role will be at the club. Under Flick, Bayern often line up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. In the absence of Lucas Hernández and Niklas Süle, Flick’s back four usually consists of Pavard and Davies at full-back with David Alaba and Jérôme Boateng in central defence.
Boateng appears to be staying at the club after a career u-turn, but his injury record – and Süle’s absence – means the club needs reinforcements for both the long and short terms. Javi Martínez remains in reserve but is, like Boateng, over 30. While Pavard and Hernandez can be used in central defence, their future at club level at least lies in the wider positions.
The main role of a Bayern centre-back is to be effective and assertive in possession. The qualities required include adept passing, positioning, tactical intelligence, and quick decision-making. During build-up, play moves from the goalkeeper into central defence, who are then tasked with moving possession up the pitch.
The space between the double pivot and defenders is wide, to facilitate playing through the opposition’s press. The central defenders need to be proficient at recognizing the options available to them and decisive at executing those passes; quick decision-making will be key.
Depending on the availability of the double-pivot or wingers, the centre-backs must be comfortable with an array of passing techniques, from long-ranged to short incisive passes. They must have excellent ball-playing abilities to bypass any potential high press.
Kouassi’s good positioning and anticipation will allow him to slot in next to a more aggressive centre-back partner and, given Bayern have one of the best sweeper keepers in world football, he will have some insurance when it comes to making mistakes.
His physicality and eventual physical development will assist Bayern in defending against more aggressive teams and in set-piece scenarios.
There is no doubt that Kouassi possesses the ball-playing abilities needed to succeed at Bayern; his aptitude for playing progressive passes through midfield matches Flick’s philosophy in build-up and progression. While he is susceptible to mistakes, they are the kind that can be eradicated with game time and coaching.
In the short term, Kouassi will not be bedded in immediately, rather given time to adapt and learn from Flick in training. His first minutes will likely come in cup matches with a handful of starts following should he impress.
If he succeeds in overcoming any early bumps in the road, his future looks bright: Boateng and Martínez will leave Bayern in the next few years, leaving the Frenchman to fight for a place with Süle and Alaba and securing Bayern’s defensive future.
Kouassi is not the finished article yet, far from it, but he has shown promise in his short first-team stint at PSG. The Bundesliga has proven a good hunting ground for many young players and rich soil for a world-beater’s breakthrough, and is now an established league in which French talent develop into outstanding players.
Kouassi has the potential to be a high-level defender but will require a stable environment and steady nurturing to stay on his upward trajectory. Flick’s Bayern should provide that.