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Why Franck Kessié could transform Tottenham’s midfield under Conte

Currently in the last year of his contract, AC Milan’s Franck Kessié has been rumored to Spurs even before Antonio Conte came into the picture.

AS Roma v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

[Managing Editor’s note: while we agree on a lot of things, we are not always a homogeneous group here at Cartilage Free Captain. Yesterday, I wrote a transfer rumor article that expressed skepticism about the potential fit of Franck Kessié, recently linked to Spurs. I feel it’s only fair to provide the counter-argument here, courtesy of Ryan Ratty.]

With Antonio Conte agreeing to come to Tottenham Hotspur, logic would suggest that the duo of chairman Daniel Levy and Director of Football Fabio Paratici gave Conte assurances that he would be backed financially in the approaching transfer windows. Spurs have yet to endure through a complete rebuild, one that has been needed for some time now. However, the club has done a decent job in the past few transfer windows in cutting some wages off of the books and lowering the age profile of the club.

By Spurs making the quick decision to sack Nuno Espírito Santo and appoint Conte, they are affording the Italian with some time for him to work with the squad, puzzle out the players that are not suited for him and figure out the pieces he needs brought into the side for him to find the right balance. So while Conte does have some solid building blocks already in the squad to work with, there are surely players that he has been keen on for quite some time.

Just hours after the appointment of Conte was made official, it came as no surprise that Spurs were linked to a bevy of Serie A players. Links to Conte’s former Inter players such as Nicolò Barella, Stefan de Vrij and Marcelo Brozović appeared almost immediately. With the Italian background of both Paratici and Conte, we should expect to see some Serie A players be implemented in the squad.

The good news for Spurs is that they are in a decent financial standing in comparison to other clubs in the Premier League. With COVID-19 regulations being lifted and events starting to fill the schedule at the stadium, Spurs are finally turning a profit.

We should not expect Spurs to throw a ton of money around and completely rebuild at the snap of the finger like some clubs can afford, but we should expect shrewd, astute signings that make sense for the squad. Fortunately for Spurs, AC Milan’s Franck Kessié is in the last year of his contract and he should be available at a bargain price.

A player both Spurs and Conte have had their eyes on for quite some time, Kessié has already told AC Milan that he will not be signing another contract. With Milan expected to try to sell and at least get back some return on their investment in Kessié, Spurs could take advantage of a situation that is eerily similar to the one they had with Christian Eriksen roughly two seasons ago.

For Spurs, many reinforcements have been brought in at midfield in the past couple of seasons. So while Spurs have other pressing needs, such as adding another striker and another center back, the club would be wise to bring in a talent like Kessié.

At 24, Kessié has been around Italian football for nearly six years ranging from Atalanta, to a loan spell at Cesena and then Milan, so Conte has obviously has gotten familiar with the player from his time with the San Siro rivals.

Considered a defensive midfielder, Kessié embodies the type of midfielder that Conte could find extremely resourceful. While Spurs already have two decent options that have been used as holding midfielders in Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, neither player provides the comfort on the ball, the ability to play with tempo and make progressive passes forward with consistency like Kessié can.

At Atalanta, Gian Piero Gasperini deployed Kessié as a central midfielder in a 3-4-1-2 formation, taking advantage of his pressing nature while also being on the back-end of attacking threats by arriving later in the box. Kessié was apart of a renaissance-like season for Atalanta, helping them qualify for European football in quite some time and earning a transfer to AC Milan. Playing under a few different managers, Kessié’s tenure for Milan started out a bit shaky. Once Stefano Pioli came over from Fiorentina, Kessié excelled in the middle of the park due to his blue-collar play style and ball-winning skills.

Kessié has grown into his stature well since getting more and more seasoning in Serie A. He has a great football brain and uses his strength and athleticism to win 50-50 balls in midfield. On top of that, Kessié is spectacular at passing the ball, indicating that when he does win out duels in the middle of the field, he is a danger to opposing defenses to push the ball forward into dangerous areas. Under Conte, we should expect Spurs to be pressing a ton. Having a player like Kessié who can win out physical battles in midfield and progress the ball forward could simply do wonders for a team that has high-quality finishing players like Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.

When we look at Tottenham’s midfield, there are some decent options, but the issue is that Spurs really do not have an talent who can do it all in midfield. They do not have a player like Kessié, who can win out against opposing attackers in the middle of the field, accurately pass the ball forward and even get on the end of goals and shot-creating actions. Let’s talk briefly about each of Spurs’ midfielders below:

  • Tanguy Ndombele: We all know that Ndombele can be magic in ball-progressing and attack, but he has not shown to be an especially good defender. The combination of Kessié and Ndombele could honestly be quite similar to the midfield pivots we talked about with Kessié in the past, where he focused on ball-winning and covering while his partner got forward.
  • Giovani Lo Celso: The jury is still out on Lo Celso. There is definitely an idea that the Argentinian international has not had the benefit of playing in his usual position. Perhaps the complement that Lo Celso needs is for a new midfielder to come in and take some of the demands asked of him off of his plate.
  • Oliver Skipp: I am very curious to see how Conte handles Skipp. The Italian will sure lovely his mentality, but the truth is that Skipp is still extremely inexperienced and new to the Premier League. There have been rumors of Skipp getting a loan away with Conte in, with Conte looking to bring in familiar faces in midfield (like Marcelo Brozović for example).
  • Pierre-Emile Højbjerg: Similar to Skipp in playing style and nature, Højbjerg will definitely draw some praise from Conte. A warrior and a player who is seemingly always available, Conte should have a spot for Højbjerg given his experience and impact in the dressing room. However, the addition of Kessié could make Højbjerg somewhat redundant unless Conte really wanted to feature a shape that dulled out opposing attacks.
  • Harry Winks: Yesterday’s match aside, Winks’ days are still probably numbered in north London. However, Conte is going to give every player in the squad a chance to prove himself. With Conte likely wanting more of a numerical advantage in midfield, it may be to Winks’ benefit. While Winks struggles in defense and he does not have the pace to press and win out duels, inserting Kessié could give Winks a bit more freedom in opening up passing lanes and threading the midfield together.

It may not seem like it, considering they have added quite a new faces in the department over the last few years, but Spurs are definitely primed to be in the market for another midfielder. Kessié has world-class qualities and could be available on the cheap due to his contract situation.

The primary issue that has plagued Spurs all season has been their inability to find the correct balance of attack and defending in the midfield. By adding Kessié, Spurs can get a player who can act as that holding presence while also progressing more attacking-minded midfielders like Ndombele and Lo Celso forward to get on the end of goal-scoring opportunities.

With his intelligence, Kessié has the natural capability to do a lot of things that could be asked of him under Conte. We spoke the other day how Conte will likely feature a 3-5-2 shape that shifts into a 4-2-4 when in attack. One of his midfielders will likely stay back and act as a de facto center back once the team possesses the ball and is operating an attack. Kessié’s versatility in the midfield to act as that defensive-minded midfielder or even be positioned further up the pitch makes him a priority transfer for Spurs to make as we assess the next couple of transfer windows under Conte.

Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.