When it comes to Premier League centre-backs, size really does tend to matter.
The starting point tends to be around the six-foot mark. That height gives central defenders a fighting chance when competing against the top-flight’s most physical forwards and ensures they can’t be bullied when travelling away to the likes of Burnley or Stoke City in years past.
Cast your eye over top Premier League defences and there is almost certainly a dominant aerial presence in the backline.
Virgil van Dijk, for instance, won 81% of his aerial duels during Liverpool’s title-winning 2019/20 Premier League campaign, per FBRef. Manchester City’s John Stones achieved a 75.4% success rate last term.
And Harry Maguire, the Manchester United captain affectionally known as Slabhead by his England teammates, was successful in 77.5% of his aerial duels last season.
Chelsea do not lack for aerially dominant centre-backs either: Antonio Rudiger, Kurt Zouma and Thiago Silva all had a success rate greater than 70% in the Premier League last term.
Being a powerful presence in the air is, of course, not the most important factor for a modern-day defender given the swathe of sides who attempt to play possession-based, controlled football. Yet it is important, especially within the England game.
That brings us to Jules Kounde. News emerged yesterday that Chelsea are in advanced talks with Sevilla over the France international, who has established himself as one of the standout young defenders in European football over the last four seasons.
There is a lot to like when it comes to the 22-year-old. He has an excellent range of passing, is comfortable bringing the ball out of the backline, and has the composure to thrive at the very top level. But for a centre-back, he is a little on the small side.
Kounde stands 5ft 10ins, the same height as Cesar Azpilicueta, someone who has played the majority of his career as a full-back. It hasn’t impacted Kounde’s progress as a centre-back, but the Frenchman knows he is targeted by opponents.
“Growing up, it was often said to me that my size could be a problem for managers,” he told Foot Mercato not long after breaking into the Bordeaux first team in 2018. “It’s true that sometimes at my height you can’t always challenge in aerial duels but you can always manage the opponent.
“I’ve always had good timing, I like aerial duels and I jump relatively high, so that really helps. But my small size has never been a problem for me.”
Take a quick glance at the number of aerial duels Kounde won last term in La Liga and the immediate reaction would be one of approval. The defender won 3.56 per 90 in the Spaniard top flight, a figure that few other centre-backs in the division could better.
So what’s the issue? Well, as Kounde himself has acknowledged, opponents often try to expose his lack of height by firing long balls in his general direction throughout games. Quite simply, he wins more aerial duels than most because he attempts more.
“I win more head-to-head battles than [Sergio] Ramos because the opponents don’t dare play long on Ramos,” Kounde explained to Onze Mondial last year.
“They say to themselves, ‘It’s Jules Kounde, he is not tall, we are going to dismantle him in the air’.
“I am often targeted, I feel it. And sometimes, it is pointed out to me. After games, I am often told that and when I rewatch matches, I realise I compete in a lot more aerial duels than the others.
“Opponents say to themselves that it will be easier against Kounde. That motivates me. And it’s a part of my game that I’m working on because I know I’m going to be targeted.
“Yes, if I face a striker who is 1.90m and has the ability to jump high, it will be more complicated. So, I prepare myself by working to be ready on match-day.”
What we really should look at – as we did at the top of this piece – is aerial duel success rate. Last season in La Liga, a division far less physically imposing than the Premier League, Kounde’s stood at 63.8%.
For context, that is a figure every recognised Chelsea centre-back bettered in the Premier League last term. However, Azpilicueta, who was used on the right of Thomas Tuchel’s back three, didn’t: the Spaniard won just 54.7% of his aerial duels.
It’s credit to Kounde’s ability and mentality that his size hasn’t halted his ascent to the top of the European game. There is no doubt, though, in the Premier League he would be physically tested like never before. Just take comments made by Timo Werner last season about centre-backs in England.
“At the beginning, I had this self-image that I can go on doing my thing here, but in the last few months I have been brought down to earth. It’s the way in England that you never have a quiet game,” he told German magazine Kicker in February.
“The players are 1.90m tall, brutal physically and really fast – including the defenders. It’s impressive what intensity is going on in the Premier League.”
If Chelsea do go on to complete a deal for Kounde, it will be fascinating to see how he adapts to the Premier League. In a back three, he’s unlikely to have too many problems as the traditional target man striker could be picked up by others. In a four-man defence, it could be a different story.
The Premier League is constantly evolving and there may come a point in the future that the age of the aerially dominant centre-back is phased out, especially as studies over the impact of heading footballs continue to be undertaken.
But English football isn’t there yet. Kounde may find that out the hard way if he does arrive at Stamford Bridge.