It’s come down the last day of the season, but on Sunday we’ll finally discover…
Steven Gerrard’s eighth signing as Rangers manager may just prove to be one of his most important. On Tuesday, the Liverpool legend completed the loan signing of Lassana Coulibaly from Angers for a one-year period with no purchase option.
He arrives as a player that few Gers fans will know anything about. Fewer still will have seen him play for any period longer than a handful of minutes on YouTube. The 22-year-old, however, is not a figure who translates well to the social media age, where clips of outrageous skill can transform modest players temporarily into viral sensations.
Instead, Coulibaly is a man who performs the dirty work, acting as a shield to his defence before harrying up the field. His passing can be wayward when he becomes too ambitious and he has only a couple of career goals in more than 60 top-flight appearances in France, but that is not what teams look for from him.
He is the type of figure that Ligue 1 clubs produce by the drove. Strong in the tackle and with bundles of energy, he comes from the same prototype that produced N’Golo Kante, although it goes without saying that he is not of the same standard – after all, he wouldn’t have spent much of last season sitting on Angers’ bench if he had been.
Indeed, he is coming off a frustrating campaign in which a career that had steadily been taking off rather stalled. His move to Stade Raymond-Kopa from Bastia, who only sold him because of financial difficulties that resulted in them ultimately going bust, should have been the type of deal that suited him.
However, head coach Stephane Moulin, who signed him to replace monstrous captain Cheikh N’Doye, was not happy with his irregular level and tactical indiscipline and soon cast him to the bench. Opportunities in the starting XI were sparse thereafter, although a good showing against Paris Saint-Germain late in the campaign showed that there remains a good player in him waiting to come out.
Certainly, before he moved to France’s north-west, he had shown a good deal of potential. He had been picked up by Bastia from Feyenoord Academy D’Accra as a teenager and spent four years on Corsica. Initially, he was given only a youth contract but having made 15 appearances in his debut season under these effectively amateur terms, he was given a professional deal in the summer of 2016 and handed a regular starting place in a team that was eventually consigned to relegation.
Coulibaly, who was given a first international cap by Mali early in the 2016-17 season, would prove one of their bright spots, with his capacity for getting his head down at training and improving one of the attributes that most impressed his coaches. It was this that helped pave the way for a €2 million summer move to their Ligue 1 rivals, where the hiccups began.
Rangers fans, though, should be excited by the promise that he holds, while his arrival represents a glorious opportunity for Gerrard to show what he can do on the training field. As an elite central midfielder in his playing days, the Liverpool icon knows better than most what it takes to succeed in the box-to-box role that Coulibaly favours. Of course, the African does not have the attacking arsenal that Gerrard bristled with during his pomp, but he has the raw attributes to be one of Scotland’s premier defensive midfield players for the next campaign.
Comparisons with Celtic’s Olivier Ntcham are not unfounded. They are of similar build, occupy similar areas of the field and play the game in a combative style. But the Hoops paid good money – reportedly £4.5 million – to grab the France Under-21 international from Manchester City. While you don’t always pay for what you get, it can offer a fair indication of quality, and in this regard, there is little doubt that Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal a player superior at the current time.
However, if Coulibaly can be chiselled in the right way by Gerrard, there is little reason he cannot become as effective. The potential is there. Rangers might only get the benefit of the 22-year-old for a season, but he could stand as a case study in what could be achieved on the south side of the Clyde. If Stevie G can untap the potential of this Malian star, it will serve as a good indication that he can be a long-term success in the Ibrox dugout.