Franck Kessié: Meet the Ivorian wonderkid watched closely by Chelsea and Manchester United

Generation Next is our regular feature on Just Football profiling the best young talents in the world. And here’s another to keep an eye on – Atalanta’s bustling midfielder Franck Kessie…

Last summer, when Genoa former coach Gian Piero Gasperini made the move to Atalanta, after seven wonderful years spent in Liguria (interjected by spells at Inter Milan and Palermo), many thought it was the beginning of the end for his career.

Coaching the nerazzurri was regarded as a backwards step from Genoa, as if Gasp was slowly moving away from the big stage. There, to be honest, he only had one chance. He failed miserably with that chance, lasting just five matches at Inter Milan.

Those who thought this are being proven largely wrong. Only someone completely unaware of who Gasperini is can be surprised at what he’s doing at Atalanta. Right from the start, he has given the team a strong philosophy which, combined with his ability in giving game time to youngsters, took Atalanta to the verge of Europa League qualification in Serie A.

If Gasperini is doing what he’s doing, much of the credit must go to his players: the roster is full of emerging starlets – Andrea Conti, Andrea Petagna, Mattia Caldara to name a few. But among them, one stands out more prominently than the others. His name is Franck Yannick Kessié.

SEE ALSO: The #JF70 2017: Top 10 best Serie A young talents to watch in 2016/17

Profile

Name: Franck Yannick Kessié
Date of Birth: December 19th, 1996
Age: 20
Club: Atalanta BC
Nationality: Ivorian

Who is Franck Kessié?

“Franck Kessié is one of the most interesting youngsters in the Serie A. It is normal that many teams like him a lot. He is one of the Atalanta players we are following. They always do a great job with their youngsters.”  ̶ Juventus executive Giuseppe Marotta, December 2016

Franck Kessié comes from Ouaragahio, a town in the Ivorian hinterland, where he was born almost exactly 20 years ago. When he was a kid, his country was darkened by the civil war and Franck, like many other Ivorians his age, relied mostly on football for happiness.

Still very young, he moved to Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, to pursue his dreams. There, he started playing as central defender at Stella Club d’Adjamé, guiding the U17 national team through to the 2013 U17 World Cup in the process. Wearing the captain’s armband and the number 10 shirt, he scored two goals in that tournament, making it to the quarter finals where Ivory Coast were defeated by Argentina.

After months spent observing him, Atalanta decided to bring him to Italy in January 2015. After some good games in the youth team Kessie was loaned to Cesena, in Serie B. It was there that coach Massimo Drago turned him into a midfielder.

At Cesena, Kessié found the continuity he needed to understand Italian football. After a great season with 37 appearances and four goals, he was called back to Bergamo with Atalanta. This time, he would become a key player on Gasperini’s chessboard.

The Ivorian didn’t disappoint. By mid-September, he had already scored four goals. But Gasperini, an expert at dealing with youngsters, especially with regards to their fragile mental balance, promptly threw water on the fire:

“Kessié is doing good. He’s an important player like many others we have in the team. Now the spotlight’s on him because he scored some goals, but he need some more tests to prove his value.” ̶ Gian Piero Gasperini, October 2016

Despite his manager’s attempts at keeping Kessié’s season in low-profile mode, the 20-year-old midfielder is, at this point of the season, regarded as one of the strongest young players in European football. His six goals and outstanding performances thus far have made him a symbol of black-and-blues’ surprising campaign.

Playing style

Franck Kessié began his playing career as a central defender because, though not particularly tall, he has great timing in heading out opponents’ long balls. In addition, he has a high jumping reach, and knows how to get on the ball before his rivals.

Despite his knack for defending, people around him soon realised his feet were too good to let him play in the rearguard. Once he arrived in Italy, he started his transformation into midfielder. This positional conversion began to bear juicy fruits at Cesena; Kessie became one of the best defensive midfielders in Serie B.

Playing in front of the defence, Kessié uses his physical strength and intelligence to intercept passes and outmuscle opponents.

But Franck Yannick Kessié is way more than this. With his good technique, he dictates the pace of the team and knows how to attack too. His movements along the attacking line resemble those of a real forward. He feels comfortable acting on the flanks or on the edge of opponent box, where we often find him during a match.

What is most striking about him is his great calm when dealing with the ball. Even if opponents are right in front of him, the youngster always seems to know what to do, and he is certainly aided in this by his ability to use both feet comfortably. The great faith teammates have in him is proved by the fact that Kessié is one of the first choices when there’s a penalty to take, in Atalanta as well as in the national team, where he became a regular in 2016.

What next?

It is quite obvious to everybody that Gasperini’s aforementioned words have lost most of their value now. Franck Kessié is definitely the most precious jewel of Atalanta and it’s impossible for the bergamaschi to hide him from top clubs’ scouts now.

The first teams to show interest in the youngster were Napoli, Roma, Juventus and Inter Milan. At the moment, though, English clubs seem most determined to buy him. Rumours persist that Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and even Tottenham are all interested in his purchase, but Antonio Conte’s Chelsea struck first with a €25 million bid.

Despite being seemingly impossible to reject, the Blues’ offer was sent back to the sender – at least for the January transfer window. Atalanta are now fighting for an unprecedented high position in Serie A, and chairman Antonio Percassi is willing to keep all the key players until June.

SEE ALSO: January Transfer Window 2017 complete guide: 17 players who could be on the move around Europe

It is surely true that such bids are hard to turn down, but black-and-blue supporters can still hold on to Kessié himself’s declaration, released to L’Eco di Bergamo in November:

“I’m going to stay here at least until June. I will focus on the national team in January and try winning Africa Cup of Nations. It’s too early to think about what will happen at the end of the season, my mind is on Atalanta now.”

Words that will delight Atalanta fans. But the truth is that a player of Franck Kessie’s talent seems destined for one of Europe’s heavyweight clubs sooner or later.

SEE ALSO: AFCON 2017: 10 promising African young talents to watch at the Africa Cup of Nations

Don’t forget to follow @JustFootball on Twitter and Facebook for more football news, features and analysis, including updates on January transfers, the best young players in Europe and AFCON 2017.

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