It takes a special kind of defender to appeal to both the heart and mind. Then again, Jules Koundé is a special kind of defender.
‘I first saw him in training when he was 18. I immediately saw a very talented player with a lot of potential. He exuded a lot of maturity and was ahead of the rest of the group.’
Philippe Lucas was no stranger to seeing star quality up close on the training pitch. As a player he had shared a pitch with Zinedine Zidane, Christophe Dugarry and Bixente Lizarazu. Having moved into coaching at Bordeaux B, the same eye would cast a gaze for the club’s next generation.
Yet even in the context of the players Philippe had already crossed paths with, there was something unique about this boy.
Not overly tall nor broad. This teenager had a far more intangible sense of greatness. In his game-reading, awareness, and quality of technique.
These same traits are attributed to the older, more mature version playing in Andalusia today. A centre back of rarefied grace, poise and elegance both on the ball and across the turf.
This is the inside story of Jules Koundé, from the perspective of the coach that helped nurture him. A story still very much in its infancy, yet promising to test the stratosphere.
A developed personality
The club as a whole was heading in a promising direction. Between 2010 and the start of 2018/19, Bordeaux only once finished outside the top ten in Ligue 1. Two back-to-back sixth placed finishes in 2016/17 and 2017/18 established them towards the head of the domestic top tier.
Philippe was tutoring an advanced group of boys. Jules Koundé may have been the standout talent, but this team (Bordeaux B, participating in the Nationale 3 division) also contained Monaco’s Aurélien Tchouaméni. Tchouaméni is two years the junior of Jules Koundé, and made his first appearance for the B side after Koundé had progressed to the seniors.
The two have developed into fine players. This summer could feasibly see both leave their respective clubs for well over £100 million combined. With Koundé already a France senior international, and Tchouaméni an U-21 of over fifty youth caps, Bordeaux’s talent production could head the next dominant international side this decade.
For all the clear technical qualities on show, Koundé displayed a mental fortitude and wisdom far beyond his teenage years. There are many centre backs a decade older than Jules Koundé that are still yet to develop this sage defending perspective.
‘He was naturally gifted and possessed of good technique. Jules worked on these aspects of the game like the rest of the group. He was always calm, showing calm and never panicked which helped him in this regard.’ says Philippe.
Jules Koundé: the all rounder
This piece is being constructed in the immediate aftermath of Koundé’s international debut.
The squad’s second youngest member after Kylian Mbappé, few would have expected Jules Koundé to appear at the finals themselves. Presenel Kimpembe, Raphael Varane, Clement Lenglet and Kurt Zouma make for an impressive centre back quota to overthrow.
Yet it was at right back that Koundé would wriggle into the starting eleven. His pace across the ground, and anticipation of space make him a useful variant in this role. Coach Didier Deschamps will often hold his right back (usually Benjamin Pavard) from marauding to far, or as far as the left back. Playing a customary centre back like Jules Koundé therefore makes good sense.
This is no new phenomenon for Koundé. Under the coaching of Philippe Lucas, he was tried as a right back even in his development.
‘Yes, he has always been a defender in the centre but has also been tested as a right-back. The position he was most comfortable with soon proved to be in the middle.’
Only four of his 159 domestic appearances have featured at right back. Such is his comfortability and ease as a top level centre back that it can seem a waste to shift him to the flanks. The ability to do so, and potentially bolster the right side against a flying winger or side that look to counter at pace, make Koundé a coach’s dream.
These senses are ones Philippe can track back to his own involvement in Koundé’s growth.
‘We have worked on liveliness to be able to anticipate. We have developed his game intelligence and the science of placement.’
Jules Koundé: elite centre back
Having the full back string to his bow is certainly a testament to Koundé’s ability at only twenty two. However there can be no doubt that it is as a centre back that his true potential lies.
At Sevilla he his partnered with the aggressive Diego Carlos. A frenetic, feisty defender who lives on the edge, he is the perfect antithesis to Jules Koundé. Where the Brazilian hares into challenges, both on the ground and aerially, the younger Frenchman is measured and calm. Preferring to withhold and read space, it allows Carlos to live on the edge.
Due to being a similar age, and displaying at least an equal level of ability, it is likely that a centre back pairing of Jules Koundé and Dayot Upamecano will anchor the French international defence for the next decade. The dynamic could very much mirror the one between Koundé and Carlos at Sevilla. Both lightning quick, Upamecano’s tendencies are to rollick into tackles. Luckily in Jules Koundé he has the perfect safety blanket.
Koundé shares the same traits as the other top centre backs in world football. The likes of Virgil van Dijk and Rubien Dias are both far more physically imposing than the five-foot-eleven Frenchman. Yet each demonstrates an effortlessness to hunt down an attacker and ease them from possession.
Stealing candy from a baby is perhaps too cliched to be applied to top level sport. But Koundé can lean into an opposing player and whip the ball from them without breaking stride.
‘He was already a complete player, both good in duels, with good technique and real intelligence.’ remembers Philippe.
Having won possession, his distribution is cutting and proactive. He can break the first line and sweep into midfield with ball at feet. Koundé’s passing range can also access wide players on the other side of the pitch, switching play with great accuracy.
Jules Koundé, Dayot Upamecano, Wesley Fofana and Ibrahima Konaté are a phenomenally talented centre back quartet for France to advance forward with. All possess these qualities on and off the ball, and are every bit as enticing on the eye as their attacking counterparts. It is time to find out what they are feeding these kids.
It is hard not to be engrossed by Jules Koundé. Stylish centre backs such as he are both applauded and criticised by this trait. Their successes look effortless and inevitable. Which in turn makes their failures all the harder to take.
So far in his fledgling career, Koundé has yet to hit many obstacles. He immediately shone in a faltering Bordeaux team, and earned the attention of Europa League winners Sevilla. €25 million was a significant investment of trust in a twenty year old with only two seasons under his belt.
His transition to Spanish football has impressed, and Koundé has built a significant portfolio of impressive performances. None more so than the Europa League Final win in 2020, where Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez were kept under Koundé’s wraps.
Defenders like Jules Koundé do not come around very often. This summer will likely see him depart to either the Premier League or to one of Spain’s giants. Whilst his performances have warranted this attention, it has been a few years in the making. The institutions linked with him will have been waiting for the most reasonable opportunity to splash for him.
Composed and elegant on the ball. Confident and reasoned off it. It is easy to forget Jules Koundé in still only twenty two, and that there are further gears for him to shift into.
One must not be blinded by the sums paid for him. The numerous zeros involved can warp expectations. It is in the player himself, and the talent he exudes that they must be judged. The judgement passed by Philippe Lucas on Jules Koundé, speaks for itself.
‘At his age and position, he’s the best I’ve ever worked with.’
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