Ligue 1 has recently done a good line in footballers whom you’d be happy to take home to your mother. Thomas Lemar oozes “perfect son-in-law” material. Houssem Aouar is so clean-cut he could walk into any boyband line-up unnoticed. The stand-out butter-wouldn’t-melt choir boy of recent Ligue 1 seasons, however, has been former Nice midfielder and new 1. FC Köln signing Vincent Koziello.
Standing at only 1 metre 68 centimetres tall and with his unwieldy mop of blonde hair, Koziello always looked a boy among men when taking the field at the Allianz Riviera or around France’s grounds – even when flanked by the shorter Jean-Michael Seri and the equally vertically challenged Nampalys Mendy.
Appearances can be deceiving, however, and Koziello has proven, over the last three years since making his Nice debut just after his 19th birthday, that he has a strength of character and a healthy mix of ability, confidence and humility – both on and off the pitch – that enable him to stand out from many of those around him.
The 2015/16 season was Koziello’s real break-out season, as then-coach Claude Puel installed the Grasse native as a fixture in his midfield three, alongside Mendy and Seri. Despite Hatem Ben Arfa hogging the headlines for his goals, it was the dynamism and fluidity of the midfield that powered Nice to a fourth place finish and qualification for the Europa League.
Despite only turning 20 during the course of that season, Koziello was sufficiently trusted by his coach to start him in 32 league matches. And he was rewarded for his faith as the youngster served as an essential cog in Nice’s exciting play, constantly moving and making himself available, and ensuring with his fine one-touch play and eye for a pass that the ball kept being zipped around, destabilising the opposition and creating chances for Les Aiglons. It is rare to see Koziello keep the ball for more than a couple of seconds – his game is about bringing others into play and keeping things moving. That is not to say, however, that he is unable to be at the end of those moves too: three goals and six assists in the 2015/16 season are a testament to that.
Koziello’s game is not just focused on the offensive side either. When the opposition has the ball he remains in perpetual motion, pressing and harrying and happy to throw himself into tackles – even earning himself an unfortunate red card for an over-enthusiastic lunge during this season’s Champions’ League play-off defeat against Napoli.
While team-mate Seri has been nicknamed the African Xavi, Koziello at his very best also looks like a future Barcelona player, his awareness of space, his comfort on the ball, his range of passing – and, yes, his diminutive stature – perhaps reminiscent of a novice Iniesta.
Unfortunately, the last 18 months or so haven’t quite seen Koziello at his best. Puel left to be replaced by Lucien Favre and, although he has continued with an exciting brand of attacking football, with Seri taking on a leading role and Wylan Cyprien coming to the fore, Koziello has not pushed on.
A mixture of fewer chances to shine, and not taking those chances as he might when they have come (he started exactly half of the Ligue 1 matches for which he was available under Favre), has seen his stats fall (only one goal and one assist last season; none this season) and his star wane. Whereas there had been rumours of both Milan clubs fighting for his signature, suddenly he was no longer such a hot property.
With typical maturity, however, Koziello has seen that he perhaps needs a change of scenery in order to get out of the rut in which he finds himself. 1. FC Köln – the lanterne rouge of the Bundesliga – seems a surprising choice, but may in time prove to be a typically clever move. The speed and attacking nature of the German game will suit his style and at Cologne he’ll be in a city equally pretty to Nice, with a warm support behind him but a not unreasonable level of pressure on his shoulders. Even if relegation occurs, as seems likely, he can draw inspiration from another French youngster, Benjamin Pavard, who moved to the German second tier, gained promotion and has now broken into the full France squad.
Of his move away from Nice, Koziello speaks with typical calmness and love for his first club: “Nice of course still means a lot to me. They gave me everything, they allowed me to discover the world of professional football…Without Claude Puel I would have found it harder to become a pro. And to continue developing, Lucien Favre has also been very important. I don’t have any feelings of bitterness at all.”
Already a France under-21 international (with two goals in four appearances), and despite the wealth of competition in the midfield places for Les Bleus, Koziello’s skill set is such that, if he is able to reach his full potential, full international honours are a genuine possibility. In the meantime, this tiny clip of Koziello in Bleu, embarrassing a far bigger Côte d’Ivoire opponent, is a perfect encapsulation of Koziello, his ability and his career to date: it may look like David against Goliath – but remember that David came out on top!