Ismaël Koné is a 20-year-old midfielder who plays for CF Montreal in MLS. Kone played youth football for Quebec-based CS Saint Laurent. His breakthrough into professional football was delayed by bad luck and insinuating circumstances. First, the Covid-19 pandemic forced him to return to Canada while he was in the midst of trials with clubs in Belgium. Then unspecified technicalities in the MLS rules prevented him from signing a first-team contract with Montreal right away. But this year he has finally been able to kick off his career and has established himself as a regular contributor for Montreal. He has one goal and three assists in a little over 1500 minutes so far this season. Kone was born in Cote D’Ivoire but moved to Canada in his youth. He was called up to the Canadian national team in march of this year and made his debut with a 10-minute cameo against Costa Rica and made one other appearance against Panama. He is in a strong position to be part of the 2022 World Cup squad, though his spot is by no means guaranteed. Kone was linked to moves with both Norwich and Sheffield United in the past window, with Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom saying he would still be on the club’s wish list for the next window. One way or another a move to Europe seems inevitable for Kone. So let’s take a look at what makes him so attractive to those clubs, how he might perform at a higher level, and what areas of weakness might hold him back.
So far in his young career, Kone has demonstrated two big positive skills. Creating chances and dribbling. Kone has great off-the-ball movement and close control which makes him a danger in and around the edge of the penalty box. He is very good at receiving the ball in dangerous areas and then either creating a chance for somebody else or having a shot himself. Below is a compilation of all of the goals and assists Kone has so far in his professional career. As you can see, he really thrives around the edge of the penalty area and makes late runs into the box.
In addition to his forward runs, Kone is a strong and willing dribbler. His completion rates are only a little above average but he is very willing to take a player on and likes to carry the ball. When we look at Kone’s possession stats on fbref we can see that he does not have a huge amount of touches in most games. But, despite this, he is well above average in progressive carries, carries to the final 3rd and penalty area, and dribbles attempted.
In the compilation below we can see some of what that dribbling looks like in action. As we can see, Kone is very quick on the turn and good at using his body to shield the ball. Once he gets up to speed he is very hard to stop and he is very shifty with his body movements. His dribbling is very direct in general and his runs with the ball often end with a shot. Ismaël Kone is very tall for a midfielder, standing 6’2, and that helps a lot with his dribbling. He is big enough to hold off opponents and his long limbs allow him to control the ball when it is relatively far away from his body.
But Kone is not quite as adept at the passing side of the game. He is not without skill, and he can certainly pick a pass. But he is not a player who is always looking to get on the ball and distribute it. For Montreal, he generally looks to just lay it off to the more experienced Victor Wanyama rather than try and make a progressive pass himself. This is an area of his game that is probably going to have to improve significantly if he is going to be an impact player at a higher level. As we covered in the last section, he can progress the ball through carrying. But it is sometimes to his detriment that he does not seem that confident passing the ball forwards. Still, there is good news on this front. As I mentioned earlier he has a good success rate when he does go for a long-range pass. So clearly there is some skill to be developed there. In the compilation below you can see some of the passes he is capable of pulling off. He does not break a lot of lines but he is at least capable of playing outlet passes.
Another major downside to Kone’s game is his defensive contribution. He does not do very much of it. He ranks extremely poorly in attempted tackles, attempted pressures, and interceptions. He is also not very good in the air despite his height. As with his passing, there is some indication that he could improve on this front. His tackle success rate is above average, it’s just that he never attempts any. So with some development, his defending might be, if not a strength, at least not a weakness.
These defensive deficiencies put a bit of a limit on the role he can play in midfield. He plays in a double pivot for Montreal but is always next to a midfielder who does most of the ball-winning and progressive passing. If you are signing Kone to be an all-action midfielder then, at least at this point in his career, you are going to be sorely disappointed. He is still young and there is a road to improvement on his weaknesses. But if you are making plans for next week then he cannot be the metronome of a midfield.
Ismaël Kone has been linked with two moves to the English Championship. It seems that a move to around that level is inevitable. Kone’s attacking ability and his dribbling skill could allow him to have a positive impact as an aggressive box-to-box midfielder at the Championship level. But there are serious limitations to his game at this stage. He is not a player who dictates the tempo of a match. He does not get on the ball very much, his passing is limited, and he does not offer very much defensively. The good news is he has a lot of potential to grow. Though he does not play many progressive passes, the ones he does attempt are usually accurate. Similarly, although he does not make many defensive plays his tackle success rate is above average. He is also really tall and has good physical traits which will always give him a leg up on his less gifted counterparts. I think this potential to improve makes Kone a project worth pursuing, even if he won’t be able to do it all right away. In the long term, I think Kone has big five league potential. But this is contingent upon him adding some skills to his game. The highlights of his game will probably always be the damage he can do around the edge of the penalty area but he is going to have to do more in the build-up and on the defensive side of the ball if he is going to reach his full potential.