Even before Ismael Kone knew where he would land in an inevitable January transfer move, he was hungry for what the future had in store.
“It would be an opportunity to grow even more,” Kone told The Athletic in an August interview when speaking about the prospect of moving to Europe. “That’s all I care about.”
The 20-year-old will be given that opportunity to keep growing at English Championship club Watford. His transfer, which is believed to have been worth around £8.8million ($10.6m), was a record for CF Montreal.
“I am sure he will help us in the next six months as well as in the longer term,” said Watford manager Slaven Bilic after Kone signed a four-and-a-half-year contract.
There is a lot of hype surrounding the Canadian, but given his excellent performances in 2022, it appears to be justified.
Last year saw the central midfielder make his MLS debut for Montreal’s first team. From there, he scored four goals and provided five assists in 32 appearances across all competitions.
On top of this, he made his debut for Canada and played in all three of their games at the World Cup. He scored his first goal for his country against Bahrain just before the tournament got underway.
A first #CanMNT goal for Ismael Kone?
You bet! The #CFMTL star bursts past the Bahrain backline and tucks home his finish as cool as you’d like 😎
🔴 https://t.co/7JFAUhxUCE pic.twitter.com/fW5AqjgjWG
— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) November 11, 2022
Faced with a challenging group, Kone performed well in Qatar, showing his trademark confidence and game-breaking ball movement.
Not bad for a player who only began training with Montreal in 2021 after previously playing for an amateur Canadian club, CS Saint-Laurent.
Kone then made his Watford debut on Saturday in the FA Cup third-round defeat by Reading.
But what can Bilic and the fans expect from their exciting new signing? The Athletic takes a look…
Watford will enjoy the luxury of being able to use Kone across different positions in the Championship.
As the chart below shows, he spent the majority of 2022 as a defensive midfielder or as a link-man in the middle of the park. Yet on his Watford debut at the weekend, he started on the left side of a double pivot, which shows how adaptable he is.
What makes him so versatile is his confidence on the ball, his quick, clean passing ability and his superb dribbling.
There is very little hesitation in Kone’s game and he is proficient at providing team-mates with goalscoring opportunities in the final third — he had an 83.5 per cent pass completion rate in the attacking third last year. This suggests he will be more than capable of playing higher up the pitch for Watford if required.
But when it comes to the middle of the park, which is where he played against Reading, it is his dribbling ability that shines.
Slaven Bilic turning Ismael Kone into a Destroy-And-Progress midfielder?
— Peter Galindo (@GalindoPW) January 7, 2023
“He wants to take responsibility. He’s good on the ball and he did some good things off the ball,” Bilic said of Kone after his debut. “He showed me we can count on him and that we can use him straight away.”
His quality on the pitch is mirrored by his Smarterscout ratings, which relate to how often or how effectively a player performs certain actions (eg, shooting). His carry and dribble volume rating (57 out of 99) indicates he runs with the ball slightly more than the average central midfielder, but he is far less likely to create chances through passing (progressive passing, seven out of 99).
Instead, Kone’s brilliant dribbling drags defenders towards him and helps provide elements of creativity and unpredictability that should benefit Watford’s attack.
“He’s very powerful in terms of dribbling,” said former Montreal team-mate Samuel Piette about Kone before the World Cup. “He’s not the guy that will do stepovers. But he will take you one way and then just explode the other way. You are never able to catch him. He has that flow, the movement that other players don’t have. It’s quality, but it looks good, too. So it’s even better, that smoothness. He’s a guy that has zero fear, the way he plays.”
He is adept at dribbling past top-level opponents, too, as shown by his Smarterscout dribbling rating of 75 out of 99 for weighted duels.
Kone’s goals speak to that lack of fear.
Pick your spot 🎯
Ismaël Koné’s second goal of the season is a beauty! pic.twitter.com/htKhzRi6IJ
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 28, 2022
The 2022 MLS season was full of learning opportunities for Kone on and off the pitch. He said he became more confident as the season wore on and that he believed he was cleaner with his touches and more aggressive in trying to take the ball forward.
CF Montreal midfielder and Canadian international Ismael Kone (20) is very good.
No wonder Norwich City tried to wrap up a $6m deal early before this price keeps climbing. Sure there isn’t a shortage of teams queuing to sign him after the Norwich deal fell through. 🇨🇦 pic.twitter.com/dL9u2zzXkw
— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) August 4, 2022
Again, all of this came in just Kone’s first professional season.
It will be intriguing to see how Bilic handles a player who lacks elite experience but has enormous potential. Will he take the reins off his fancy new toy and allow Kone to explore his new surroundings with his huge confidence?
You could argue this was how manager John Herdman approached Kone with Canada early on, and you could also make the case that it was an approach that paid dividends as Kone looked dynamic with the ball at his feet.
Kone went on trial to Belgian sides Genk and Mouscron in 2020, going on a crash course in the professional football lifestyle since he had only played in the amateur game at that point.
“It showed me how the professional game works,” said Kone of his ultimately unsuccessful trials. “The game was faster, the intensity was higher. I knew it would be, but it’s different to actually live it.”
When COVID-19 hit the world, Kone returned to Canada and spent the year biding his time before finally landing on Montreal’s radar.
Given how recent his adjustment to professional football has been, some patience might be required as Watford work to integrate Kone into a physically demanding league.
For all his talent, Kone’s Watford team-mates shouldn’t expect to hear much from him. Kone’s former team-mates in Montreal say he was one of the more quiet, reserved characters in the dressing room.
It might be a wise move for Bilic to pull a veteran aside and ask him to take Kone under his wing.
Kone said he learned plenty from 31-year-old Victor Wanyama at Montreal in 2022. “He’s a big brother to me,” Kone said. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder’s advice to Kone was simple: “You know you have quality. Go out on the pitch and show who you are.”
“This is a process,” former Montreal head coach Wilfried Nancy said of Kone in August. “This is new for him. Everything. It’s not all about the pitch. It’s all about off the pitch. So, the way he’s going sleep, what he’s going to eat, the environment.”
The challenges will undoubtedly continue for Kone as he joins a side fighting for promotion.
But these are challenges he appears ready for.
“I have to be demanding of myself,” Kone said.
(MLS statistics via American Soccer Analysis, graphics courtesy of Liam Tharme)
(Top photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Read the full article here