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Africa Sports News of Saturday, 19 June 2021


Franck Kessie: Should Liverpool be considering AC Milan talisman?

AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessie

It was perhaps fitting that Franck Kessie got the goals that secured AC Milan’s place in next season’s Champions League.

The Ivory Coast midfielder netted twice from the spot in the 2-0 victory over Atalanta on the final day to see the Rossoneri return to Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since 2013/14.

Having looked to be in the title race at the turn of the year, Stefano Pioli’s troops had to battle through an extended decline in the New Year to end in the top four. Their arduous journey had to have thrown doubt into the minds of the club’s supporters who feared the team was set for an eighth season without CL football.

Kessie played for the seven-time European champions in four of their seven campaigns without competing with the continent’s finest, and can lay claim to playing a huge part in their return to the competition.

Featuring under four managers already — from Vincenzo Montella in 2017 to Pioli, the incumbent — the midfielder is Milan through and through having participated in and thrived through the club’s struggles.

Why then would he leave when the Red and Blacks are back where they feel they belong and have always belonged?

In a season where Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s injuries frustrated, Ismael Bennacer’s mid-season absence affected their midfield balance and mistakes crept in after their unbeaten run was halted by Juventus in January, Kessie remained the most consistent Milan player throughout the year.

It’s hard to see a scenario where the 24-year-old leaves San Siro without making his Champions League debut for the club.

Despite the obvious emotional connection with the Serie A giants, reports have grown that Liverpool could consider the West African to replace Paris Saint-Germain-bound Georginio Wijnaldum.

In theory, both players are box-to-box midfielders, but a comparison has to be more nuanced than simply highlighting the roles they mostly fulfil on the pitch.

Goals and assists are a weak metric to weigh up the pair, particularly as Kessie was on penalty-taking duty for Pioli’s team when Zlatan was absent. He netted 13 goals league goals (11 from the spot) to Wijnaldum’s two in 20/21, although both players are level when spot-kicks are taken out.

The Milan midfielder set up four goals to the Netherlands international’s none, while the former fashioned out five opportunities categorised as big chances to the 30-year-old’s one.

Even though Kessie sat joint-fifth in the big chances created stat for the Rossoneri, the disparity is probably understood given how Liverpool’s creativity seldom comes from central positions but from out wide.

A study of the pair’s underlying stats reveals Wijnaldum’s preference for shorter passing, while the Ivorian attempted riskier passes. Thus, it’s no surprise the Serie A star attempted more progressive passes per 90 than the former Premier League midfielder while ranking higher for passes into the final third and attempts into the penalty area per 90.

Interestingly, the 24-year-old pressed more often than the Dutch midfielder. Although the latter was the more accomplished of the pair, with Liverpool winning possession 36.2 percent of the time within five seconds of their ex-midfielder harrying an opponent, as opposed to the African’s 29.9 percent success.

The former Atalanta player dominates for tackles attempted and won, blocks (shots and passes) as well as interceptions. He also edged the head-to-head for loose balls recovered per 90, while winning more aerial duels than Wijnaldum.

However, the Netherlands star’s ball carrying and drive in possession was more progressive than Kessie — he was superior for general progressive carries and carries into the final third — despite averaging fewer touches of the ball.

Still, the West African was the more accomplished dribbler of the pair, attempting and completing a higher percentage of his dribbles than the PSG man—78.7 to 66.7 percent.

Despite their general similarities, both players interpreted their roles differently for Milan and Liverpool last season. Case in point: how the aforementioned passing stats ought to be accompanied by the caveat of the Reds favouring a possession-based style to the Serie A team’s rather direct nature.

Jurgen Klopp’s team averaged 62.4 percent of possession to the Red and Blacks’ 51.8 percent, ranking both sides second and ninth in the PL and Italian top flight respectively. Indeed, Kessie’s adaptation to Liverpool won’t be as straightforward and seamless even though he’ll effectively be replacing the Dutchman.

Having said that, it should be noted that nothing concrete has developed as regards a move for the Ivory Coast star.

If the Reds do come for him this summer, there’s a hope and sentiment that Kessie stays one more year to play Champions League football and possibly sustain a Scudetto challenge rather than leave for pastures new on Merseyside.