When we signed Younes Kaboul from Auxerre in 2007 he was the France under-21 captain. Four years on and he has finally been selected at senior level making an impressive debut against Ukraine last Monday. Kaboul played the full 90 minutes in the 4-1 win in Donetsk scoring an emphatic header when he found himself unmarked in the 89th minute. He started again against Poland the following Thursday, but limped off after 27 minutes.
The re-signing of Kaboul seemed to have a lot to do with Portsmouth’s pending administration. Even with football creditors given preference there are no guarantees with a club heading for potential bankruptcy, so, shrewd as ever, the club opted to bring Kaboul back to White Hart Lane rather than let the debt go bad.
Kaboul came back a better player than the one who’d departed in the summer of 2008 after a single season. Last season we were faced with a major injury crisis in defence with Michael Dawson suffering a knee and ankle injury on his competitive England debut, Ledley King reduced from playing occasionally to not at all, Jonathan Woodgate only fit enough to make a single substitute appearance and William Gallas missing a few games with the odd niggle. Kaboul overtook Sebastien Bassong in the pecking order after the Cameroonian’s calamitous performance in Switzerland against Young Boys.
Kaboul performed well, especially in Europe, but when Gallas and Dawson were fit there was no place for him. With neither Alan Hutton nor Vedran Corluka making an overwhelming case for the right-back position Kaboul filled in there as the season drew to a close and did a reasonable job.
He continues to contribute goals. This season he scored a half-volley against Werder Bremen and became the first Spurs player to score a winning goal away at Arsenal for 17 years.
I’ve heard a number of people say of Kaboul that ‘he has everything’, but he has everything the same way Emile Heskey has everything. Heskey is big and quick but rarely gets into scoring positions and can't finish to save his life (key attributes for a forward player). Similarly Kaboul is blessed with a large physique but that doesn’t make him a great defender.
His lack of concentration and commitment make him a slack marker. The season before last against Chelsea the best Spurs performance I’ve ever seen was marred by a daydreaming Kaboul letting Frank Lampard get in front of him to score a late consolation goal. The replay of Arsenal’s first goal in the 3-2 victory (the game in which he scored the winning goal) shows a lazy Kaboul jogging back while a burst of energy may have stopped Samir Nasri scoring.
Another big problem is that it doesn’t take much to get past him. An intelligent attacker can breeze through like a canny member of the public moving past a Big Issue seller. He also lacks presence in the air despite his stature. Early in the season he was at fault for goals against Stoke City and West Brom.
We used to sing 'you'll never beat Sol Campbell' and for the majority of attackers it was the case. There was a defender that actually did have everything. Big and strong like Kaboul, but with much more: brilliant in the air, firm and accurate in the tackle and most importantly an ability to read the game. A truly great defender.
Kaboul isn’t in the same class as Campbell or, to make a less inflammatory comparison, Ledley King. Defenders can peak in their late twenties, but with Kaboul the player he is at 25 there’s no way he’ll ever match the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Marcel Desailly, Jaap Stam, Fabio Canavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Lilian Thuram and other greats. Neither will Michael Dawson for that matter.
I’m only comparing Kaboul to the very best players in his position because of the lofty attributes others have ascribed to him. I’m quite happy with him as a squad player and from that point of view his transfer has been a success.
If Kaboul gets another run in the team he could find himself going to Ukraine again with the national team for the European Championships. If Laurent Blanc has serious aspirations to win the tournament it’s highly unlikely he’ll be able to do so with a centre-back like Kaboul in the first team. Likewise if Tottenham are to get back in the Champions League it won’t be with Kaboul playing week in week out. We might just be able to progress with one of Dawson and Kaboul playing regularly, but not both. Kaboul has relied on Gallas the way Dawson has relied on King.
While a number of Spurs fans hold Kaboul in high regard his absence from the international scene has never exactly been met with outrage. And it’s not as if France have been in particularly good shape over the last few years. It wasn’t Desailly and Thuram keeping him out of the team; Sébastien Squillaci had 21 caps before Kaboul had any.
Kaboul is a very emotive player, which is one of the reasons he curries so much favour. There have been many more important goals than Kaboul’s net-buster in the 125th anniversary game against Aston Villa in 2007, but the sight of a topless Kaboul embracing an under fire Martin Jol after sealing a 4-4 draw in injury time and saving Jol’s job (if only for a few weeks) will live long in the memory.
He’s a player who inspires strong feelings and one worth holding on to, but there’s little evidence that he’ll ever be good enough to command a defence that challenges for the title.