Kalidou Koulibaly was the first person to signpost the fact that he would need some time to adjust to life at Chelsea, but he can no longer count on being the top pick of the club’s head coach.
Those with knowledge of the situation are adamant that Thomas Tuchel was the driving force behind Koulibaly’s move to Stamford Bridge. That is not to say that others at Chelsea doubted him, but it was the German who was adamant that the 31-year-old was the man to replace Antonio Rudiger.
Tuchel was an admirer of Nathan Ake, who Chelsea agreed personal terms with and held negotiations with Manchester City over, but Koulibaly is said to have been his priority following a season in which the former Napoli star was ranked among Serie A’s best-performing defenders – alongside a certain Fikayo Tomori.
Chelsea were cautioned by outsiders over Koulibaly’s age and the fact many of England’s top clubs, including Manchester United and Liverpool, had looked at him and, ultimately, not signed him but Tuchel was determined that his experience, character and physicality made him the perfect fit.
But while Tomori will make his first Stamford Bridge return as an AC Milan player in the Champions League on Wednesday night, Koulibaly cannot be quite so certain of his position at Chelsea following the appointment of Graham Potter as Tuchel’s successor.
'I know my moment will come'
Speaking on Tuesday, ahead of Milan’s visit, Koulibaly, who cost Chelsea £34 million, did not sound like a man who expected to start against the Italians but insisted he had no regrets over leaving Serie A leaders Napoli.
“I’m very happy for Napoli, but I’ve got no regrets and I’m very happy to be here,” said Koulibaly. “I know my moment will come and when it does I will be 100 per cent ready to give my best.
“I spoke with people who told me it would be difficult and the pace is a little bit different from Italian football, but I’m going through a process which is normal and I’m very happy to be here.”
The initial fear had been that the departure of Tuchel could place a question mark over Chelsea’s decision to sign striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but, albeit only two games into Potter’s reign, Koulibaly is yet to play a single minute for the club’s latest head coach.
“Firstly, I’ve been really impressed with him,” said Potter. “As a person, he is honest, understands his situation in terms of having to wait a bit to play, which every player will say they are not so happy with. Then it’s how you respond and his response has been fantastic.
“He has come from a club and country that he was very familiar with and comfortable with, and making the step into the Premier League is not so easy. Things have happened in terms of changes at the club, so it’s not been the perfect situation for him. But he is a top player and top person and with that character, he will play an important role for us that is for sure.”
Potter is not the only man to have been impressed by the attitude of Koulibaly, who speaks almost perfect English and is already well liked inside Chelsea.
But, a brilliant goal against Tottenham Hotspur apart, he has struggled in each of his six Chelsea appearances under Tuchel that included a red card in the humiliating 3-0 defeat to Leeds United.
“It's a new system for me, 3-5-2, so I have to adapt everything,” said Koulibaly at his unveiling. “I will need time for sure because I can't be the player everyone wants from the first game. I will take my time and in two or three months, I will be the one everyone is waiting for.”
Two months have now passed, but Koulibaly can no longer be certain of needing to adapt to playing in a three-man defence. Potter picked Marc Cucurella, who is available again for Wednesday night, ahead of him to start on the left side of a back three against Salzburg in the Champions League, but then reverted to a back four, with Thiago Silva and Wesley Fofana partnering each other in the centre, for the victory over Crystal Palace.
The fact Chelsea remain interested in taking defender Josko Gvardiol from RB Leipzig, along with forward Christohper Nkunku, suggests that there will be more competition for places in future, although 38-year-old Thiago Silva will be out of contract in the summer and may feel the time is right to return to Fluminense, where he hopes to finish his career.
Plenty of overseas defenders, including Silva, have overcome bumpy starts to their careers in England which is why it would be foolish to write off Koulibaly so soon. But, we are still waiting to see “the one everyone is waiting for”.