Who is Caleb Okoli and how does he fit Leicester City's recruitment model?


A year ago, Caleb Okoli revealed his vision: to be playing in the Premier League within five years.

At the age of 22, he has achieved his dream after completing his £13million ($16.7m) move to Leicester City from Atalanta on a five-year contract.

Six months before he spoke about his future to Goal Italia, the Vicenza-born central defender had been part of an Italy senior training squad, invited by then Italy manager and former Leicester player Roberto Mancini as one of the promising young talents emerging in Serie A. He had been capped by Italy at under-19, under-20 and under-21 level.

Last season ended in disappointment on loan at Frosinone, who were relegated from Serie A on the last day of the season, but it was a breakthrough campaign for Okoli, who made 35 starts in all competitions.

Okoli, who studies great defenders — former Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos in particular — will need time to adapt to life in England as well as the Premier League, but Leicester have signed a player with huge potential, says Lorenzo Bettoni, a journalist with Football Italia.

“He has come through the Atalanta academy, which is widely regarded as one of the best in Italy,” Bettoni says.

“He is physical, big and strong, and he can play in a back three as well as a back four.

“He has played a few senior games for Atalanta but last season was a big season for him as he played regularly in a back three.

“He is good in physical duels and has pace, so he can defend high up the pitch. He needs to improve technically with the ball at his feet but he has the physicality which should help him in England.”


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His physicality and mobility could be a big asset for new manager Steve Cooper, who met up with his squad for the first time on Monday when Leicester returned to pre-season training.

Missing were the players who had been on international duty, including defenders Jannik Vestergaard and Wout Faes, who have been given extra time off to recover from Euro 2024.

Last season the duo played in a back four which became a back three in possession, with Vestergaard the central figure. It was a role he also carried out for Denmark at the Euros in a back three and it is a system Cooper used while manager of Nottingham Forest. Okoli’s pace and recovery abilities will be a welcome addition.

Although right-footed, Okoli also spent most of last season on the left of a back three.

“He has pace and can push up high, but towards the end of last season Frosinone were pushed back and had to defend their penalty box more,” Bettoni says.

“They slipped into relegation because their form was poor over the final couple of months. I don’t think Okoli could be blamed for that.”

In these games towards the end of last season, Okoli looks composed on the ball but also shows his athleticism as he makes two crucial tackles.

Here, against Udinese, he finds himself in a two-on-one situation and is marking Keinan Davis…

… but he times his movement towards Lorenzo Lucca, in possession, perfectly to make the challenge.

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And against Monza here, he is quick out to deny Alessio Zerbin when the forward is in a good shooting position.

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As shown below using data from smarterscout — which gives players a series of ratings from zero to 99 based on how often they perform a specific action or how effective they are at it — Okoli scored an impressive 92 for recoveries of a moving ball last season, 56 for aerial duals and 63 for disrupting opposition attacks.

He also scored 58 for passes towards the opposition’s goal and an impressive 92 for dribbles as he often looked to bring the ball out from defence into midfield.

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Fbref uses Opta and a similar metric to compare players with their positional peers in the big five leagues across Europe and European competitions over the past year. Okoli scores a high percentage compared to other central defenders for tackles (70, with 81 in the middle portion of the pitch), clearances (80) and aerials won (64), but also progressive passes (58) were relatively high.

“He is good when he brings the ball out but he is probably given a little more freedom by opponents because they don’t expect him to always pick the last pass,” Bettoni says.

“Making that numerical advantage count and making the right final decision is probably something he can improve on.”

Here, in the Udinese game, he repeatedly takes advantage of space in front of him to bring the ball forward and then makes a forward pass into a team-mate, on this occasion Walid Cheddira.

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He is an industrious player, which he attributes to his upbringing by his Nigerian parents. “The Atalanta academy places a big emphasis on building character, so for sure he is a hard worker,” Bettoni says. “There is a very demanding culture at Atalanta.

“There is no evidence of any issues or controversies with Caleb off the field. He won’t cause any problems.

“Mancini obviously saw him as an emerging talent to include him in that squad and he played in the under-21 European Championships last year as well.

“He also came through the academy at a similar time to Dejan Kulusevski, now at Tottenham.”

Leicester have not signed the finished article, but Okoli is a player with potential. They are returning to the model of trying to find up-and-coming talents they can nurture and turn into assets.

Okoli appears to tick a lot of the boxes of what has been a largely successful model for Leicester in recent years.

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(Top photo: Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)



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