Who is Ismael Koné? A deep dive into the rapidly improving 19-year-old CF Montreal midfielder set to earn first CanMNT call-up this March window
With 19-year-old CF Montreal midfielder, Ismael Koné, looking set to earn his first CanMNT call-up this window, I dive into the youngsters strong start to the MLS season here.
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The wait continues.
As has become tradition over the last year, the CanMNT squad for their upcoming March World Cup qualifying window is still yet to drop as of writing, as they continue to sort out some last-minute details in terms of the participation of certain players, a reality of running National Teams in the COVID world.
But despite that, it hasn’t stopped names from call-ups for Canada’s squad from leaking, as for the most part, the roster is finalized, making those sorts of leaks possible.
Because of that, we’ve seen confirmation that certain players will be at this March camp, be it via their clubs, or even via the players themselves. For example, Lille has already confirmed Jonathan David’s participation, as did Nottingham Forest with Richie Laryea, while Jonathan Osorio just straight-up confirmed that he’d be in as well, with some teammates potentially set to join him depending on other circumstances.
For the most part, however, those were expected names, as all 3 of those players have been in every Canadian squad so far this ‘Octagonal’, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, hardly making their confirmed inclusions that surprising. Having played crucial minutes for this Canadian squad en route to where they are now, which is sitting atop the Octo standings and on the cusp of qualifying to a World Cup with just 3 games to go, having those players be anywhere but the squad would’ve been a surprise, which is why many didn’t blink an eye at any of those bits of news.
Then, we got a bit of a surprise on Thursday night, though. Almost out of the blue, longtime CanMNT reporter, Kristian Jack, dropped a tweet on his Twitter account that suggested that 19-year-old CF Montreal midfielder, Ismael Koné, looks to be among the names included in this Canadian squad, joining a group of CanMNT regulars on Montreal which includes Kamal Miller, Alistair Johnston and Samuel Piette, as well as semi-regulars Zachary Brault-Guillard and James Pantemis.
And that is huge.
Why, you might ask?
Well, in case you haven’t been following Montreal closely this season, Koné has emerged as a huge surprise for them so far through 8 games, appearing in 7 games (6 starts) so far in his first full professional season, looking very much like he belongs at this level.
Plus, he’s already had his fair share of memorable moments, too, scoring a huge goal in his Champions League (and professional debut) against Santos Laguna, before adding an assist in just his 2nd MLS game. Then, to add to that, he picked up a goal, an assist and a penalty won on his first game after these rumours game out, which was against Atlanta United this Saturday.
Because of that, it’s all of a sudden made Koné a quickly rising name in Canadian Soccer circles, as many have started to wonder if he could be the next big thing for this CanMNT side.
Still, despite that, it was beyond anyone's wildest dreams to believe that would mean he’d get a call-up to Canada already, but as Jack’s report shows, that indeed looks to be the case now, giving Les Rouges a new face in their midfield.
So seeing this latest news, I thought it’d be a good time to dive into what Koné is expected to bring to the table here for Canada, as while his stock continues to rise, he still isn’t exactly a familiar face to most beyond Montreal and hardcore Canadian fans.
But based on what we’ve seen from him so far this year, that will change quickly, and this expected National Team call-up is just the latest reason why, continuing what has been a dream start to life as a pro for the youngster.
Who is Ismael Koné?
To start, however, it’s important to look at who exactly is Ismael Koné, and how he burst onto the scene this season.
Signed as a homegrown last August, the youngster, who is also eligible for his country of birth, Ivory Coast, has long been seen as one of the brightest talents among a good crop of youngsters that continue to come out of the CF Montreal academy as of late, with many expecting him to eventually make the jump up to the first team.
That’s why as an 18-year-old, he trained with Belgian clubs Genk, and Mouscron, before joining Montreal on trial for last season, where he impressed head coach Wilfried Nancy enough to stick around with the team for a good chunk of the year, only failing to sign a deal due to roster restrictions. Because of that, he bounced between the club’s first team and U23 side, often training with the former and playing with the latter when possible.
From there, he was able to ink his MLS homegrown deal when the roster space materialized in August, allowing him to then fully join Montreal’s roster. With a skillset that teammate Mathieu Choinière described as a hidden 'wild card' for his team, his signing was one that brought much excitement in Montreal circles, having seen how he’d impressed the team throughout his stint in training with the team.
He didn’t see the field in the fall, however, but things were on the up for Koné, who was expected to have a big year in 2022, especially after he went to go train with Montreal’s sibling club, Serie A’s Bologna, during the offseason.
Matthias Van Halst @CoupFrancMLSOlivier Renard annonce que Mihailovic, Kone et Zouhir vont aller s’entraîner à Bologne, comme Pantemis par le passé. #CFMTL
And fuelled by those experiences, he came out strong this preseason, taking what he’d learned over the last year and applying that on the field, impressing Nancy quickly this year. Thanks to that, with the club set to juggle Champions League and MLS responsibilities early on, it put him in contention to earn some pro minutes to kick off the season, especially when usual starting Montreal midfielder, Samuel Piette, suffered an ankle injury with Canada in January.
Thanks to that, he was able to make his debut in the second leg of the club’s Champions League Round of 16 tie against Santos Laguna, where he was given his first start, and from there, the rest is history.
"That's the Ismael we know, he showed that he's capable of influencing things in his first match,” Nancy said in French after that game. “Yes, he made errors, but he showed his qualities. Now, it's just consistency and growing so he can show his talent".
Since then, he’s played in every Montreal game, starting all but 1 of them, not looking at all out of place at this level, showing impressive maturity for his young age. Despite being thrown into some big games, against some tough opposition, he continues to look up to the task for whatever has come his way, and that’s impressed those who have gotten a chance to see him play for Montreal.
But with him also being eligible for the Ivory Coast, that’s where all the chatter of him playing for Canada has come up, as many want Les Rouges to woo Koné before the African giants come calling, of which you have to imagine they’ll do if he keeps up his early form.
And the good news is despite some initial confusion on whether he’d actually be eligible to represent Canada yet, given that he is listed as an international on CF Montreal’s website, Sportsnet’s Peter Galindo has confirmed that he has the paperwork necessary to represent Canada, meaning that Canadian head coach, John Herdman, can call him up if he wants.
So seeing all of that, you can really see where the hype for Koné has come from, as he’s been excellent to start the year, and with the threat of Ivory Coast looming (who Canada does hold a one-up over after getting prized prospect Ballou Tabla to commit back in 2018), it’s led to those calls for him to get his feet wet with Canada now.
Normally, it’d be a bit early for that sort of hype for a young player, to be fair, as you’d want to let him get his feet under him with Montreal first before exploring a potential call-up, and while that is still the case, it’s worth noting that the timing is perfect for him to get a shot for Canada, of which I’ll explore shortly.
With the added bonus of being able to partially cap-tie him on top of that, too, it only makes more sense to make it happen, leading to this perfect storm, one that may well get Canadian fans their wish much earlier than ever expected.
But before looking at why the timing looks to be right for Koné to enter the Canadian fold, let’s first dive into what he brings to the table here, especially for those who might not have seen him play yet.
So to begin, here’s a scouting report I’ve put together of him based on what I’ve seen from my viewings of him, as well as combined with some information that I’ve been told and have read.
As seen with that, the first thing that stands out with Koné is his versatility, as while he’s mainly played as a box-to-box midfielder so far with the first team, those who followed him in the academy and with the U23 team say that he’s actually more of an attacking midfielder and winger, although he has put in some reps at the #8, which is quite interesting.
But at the same time, you can see those attacking attributes when he plays.
Firstly, he is a very cool passer of the ball, one who not only attempts a lot of difficult and forward passes, but completes a lot of them.
That’s reflected statistically, too, as he’s averaging an 82% passing completion through 3 games in the Champions League, and a 88% pass completion through 4 games in MLS, which are very good numbers for a youngster.
And what’s good about his passing ability is that he really knows what he’s capable of, too, which is to mean that he doesn’t often miss passes as a result of trying too much, as he seems to have a good awareness of when to use a big switch, or go for a short ball.
Just take a look at these clips from his Montreal debut, for example, where he really does a good job of showing his passing range, as well as his ability to progress the ball forward on the ground.
He still misses passes, of course (which midfielder doesn’t?), but he’s done a good job of mostly avoiding making needless passes that have a higher attempt of being picked off, which is a good skill to have.
Through that, you can see how he was able to grab his first MLS assist against the Philadelphia Union, where he did a good job of making the right pass under pressure in a tight situation, and while goalscorer Lassi Lappalainen got a good stroke of luck on the finish, it was still a nice set-up from Koné.
Otherwise, something else that stands out is that he’s a strong dribbler of the ball with a good touch, which is where the winger side in him comes out, as he does a good job of navigating tight spaces with the ball, turning under pressure.
That might not reflect as much in the stats, because while he has a solid 8 dribbles in 7 games, it feels like he should have so many more. When you watch him play, there are so many instances where he turns out of pressure in tight situations, which don’t always count as a dribble completed, but still allows his team to relieve pressure.
Because of that, and his solid physical attributes, which allow him to cover good ground on and off the ball, it’s made him a strong fit in Montreal’s midfield, where he’s mostly played in a double-pivot alongside Victor Wanyama, who complements Koné’s game quite well.
He just has such strong instincts for a young player, on and off the ball, and that’s what’s made him stick at this level as he has, as he reads the game very well, allowing him to be involved in games on the attacking side of things. Yes, he sometimes gets muscled off the ball or gives away possession cheaply (he averages around 8.0 dispossessions a game, which is a bit high), but that’s just natural for a youngster, and he makes up for it in many other ways, such as in this clip below, hardly making it much of a worry.
Lastly, one key thing to note with Koné on the offensive side of things is his ability to make late runs into the box, where you can see his attributes as a #10 and a winger.
Both of his goals were scored by that route, and a lot of his best chances come from those late runs, such as his tally against Atlanta this weekend, which was just a textbook late run from Koné into a great area, where he met a nice pass and buried home.
Yet, it’s those sorts of instincts that make him dangerous offensively, which isn’t always something you see from a #8, showing why many people are excited about what he brings to that position.
But returning to Wanyama for a second, one area where their partnership has been key has been on the defensive side of things, because while Koné has impressed a lot on the offensive side of things, he’s still a work in progress defensively, leaving Wanyama to do a lot of work there.
The good news is that with someone of Wanyama’s calibre doing that, it allows Koné a little more freedom, as there is a reason why Wanyama has played over 150 games in the English Premier League, and his defensive ability is a big part of that.
So in this partnership, it’s understandable that he does a lot of the heavy lifting there for Koné, who as a still physically developing player, is still learning how to use his body on the defensive side of things as he does on the offensive side of things, especially given his conversion from a more attacking position.
You can see that he has a solid defensive understanding, averaging over an interception and a half a game across the Champions League and MLS games he’s played, but he just struggles to win duels (winning ~44% of his duels so far), while averaging less than 0.5 tackles a game, showing the physical struggles he sometimes faces.
But for a youngster, that’s okay. The defensive side of the game will come, especially since he’s shown a good instinct at getting in between passes, which is often the hardest thing for a youngster to learn.
And considering that he’s learning every day from someone like Wanyama, that’s not the worst teacher in the world for someone like him to have help him, which is why you’d figure that things will only get better for Koné on that side of things long-term.
With what he brings to Montreal on the ball, you’ll take those growing pains, as there aren’t many young midfielders who look as comfortable as he does in possession, of which he’ll only get better at with more reps.
The hardest part of playing in midfield is the mental side of things, which Koné is already showing a great understanding of, the next step for him is just to continue to grow defensively and learn how to better use his growing frame, but that’ll come with time and reps.
Considering that he’s just learning how to play as a #8, he is already quite far ahead on his developmental curve, making it exciting to envision where he’ll be weeks, months and even years from now, as he continues to adapt and evolve as a player.
As seen here from his highlight tape from his debut, produced by the folks over at In Control podcast on Twitter, he does so many little things well already, it’s just all about putting everything together, as is the case with most young players.
Where does he fit in the Canada picture?
So seeing what he brings to the table, that leads us to the all-important question - where would he fit in for Canada right now?
And there is where we can see how he’s already on the cusp of a National Team call-up, as he actually fills a key area of need for Canada in midfield.
How so, you might wonder? Well, as you can see with my CanMNT depth chart below, beyond the usual names of Stephen Eustaquio, Atiba Hutchinson, Jonathan Osorio, Mark Anthony Kaye, David Wotherspoon and Samuel Piette, depth is relatively limited.
Of course, Liam Fraser has become a key part of that conversation, often filling in as a call-up if someone from that above list gets injured, but the reality is that beyond him, especially with the recent retirement of Scott Arfield from the CanMNT, there aren’t many midfielders who can fill in if there are a ton of absences, leaving things wide open at the position.
So heading into this camp, with Wotherspoon still out long-term with a knee injury, and Piette very unlikely to participate given that he hasn’t seen the field with Montreal at all since injuring his ankle with Canada in January, the door is open for a new face beyond the expected call-ups of Eustaquio, Hutchinson, Osorio, Kaye and Fraser.
And with other potential option, the 19-year-old Stefan Mitrovic, joining Serbia’s youth camp for this window, that all of a sudden leaves Harry Paton and Koné as the best options to step up.
Because of that, it makes sense to pick Koné between the two. With Paton being more of a #10, and Canada playing a 3-4-2-1/4-4-2 as of late, Koné is actually the more natural fit in that Canadian system given that Montreal also plays a 3-4-2-1, giving him a leg up there.
Of course, Paton has more familiarity with this Canadian squad, having been called up to the senior side before, which does give him a leg up there, but considering that he is yet to receive a cap for Canada, and hasn’t been called since the Gold Cup last summer, it’s not as if he’s a locked-in regular, either, making things even between the pair.
So when you consider that, and then add in the bonus that you could show Koné that you’re interested in him (and maybe even semi cap-tie him) with a call-up, sending a message to Ivory Coast, all while rewarding him for his strong start to the season, that gives the edge to Koné over Paton.
As a result, these reports make a lot more sense, all of a sudden. Yes, it’s bold to call in a 19-year-old for his first Canadian camp with Canada on the cusp of a World Cup, but he has genuinely put himself in the conversation with his play, and with a couple of injuries to key players in Canada’s midfield, things have opened up for him now here.
Plus, it’s not as if he’s going to go out and play 180 minutes for Canada this camp. At a minimum, this will give him an opportunity to get a taste of the Canadian fold, get used to the system and train with some world-class players, and hey, if all goes right, maybe he is able to make his debut and semi cap tie himself to Canada, provided that he is up for that.
So ultimately, seeing those things, it’s a no-brainer for both sides, as everything has lined up nicely for Koné here, continuing what has been a dream start to 2022 for him.
So now, all that’s left is to wait for official confirmation that Koné is indeed in the Canadian squad, of which should come when the squad drops on Sunday or Monday.
Having only boosted his stock with his latest game over the weekend, it’ll feel weird to see him anywhere but in that squad, especially given those reports, although in what role is still yet to be defined.
But no matter what happens, one thing is clear, Koné is one to watch, and this latest news is just the most recent example of that, as things have been moving quickly for the 19-year-old this season.
Of course, it’s important to be patient with him now too, as he is still young, and growing pains might come, but that’s just all part of the process, which to give him credit, he’s handled quite nicely so far.
That’s how he has managed to get onto the Canadian radar so quickly, and why many are expecting him to make a big move abroad eventually, but for now, it’s all about taking things one step at a time, with that next step looking to be his first taste of life with the CanMNT.
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Ismael Koné shares a smile before his Montreal debut this year (CF Montreal)