Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini knew as soon as Franck Kessie turned up for pre-season training that there was something different about the then 19-year-old. The Cote d'Ivoire international had arrived in Bergamo in January of last year as a very raw talent. However, after a season in Serie B with Cesena, he was now ready for the first team. The former Inter boss admitted, "During the summer, we immediately saw that he had quality." The only problem for Atalanta is that now the rest of Europe has seen it too.
Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Juventus and Roma are all chasing the signature of a player who has taken Serie A by storm this season. Kessie has played just 20 times in Italy's top light yet been directly involved in eight goals, scoring six himself and creating two others. Those are not bad numbers for a midfielder, particularly one that started out as a centre-half.
When Cesena took Kessie on loan last year, he was a defender. However, coach Massimo Drago realised right away that the teenager had the skills to play in midfield. Kessie excelled in his new position, proving a most effective wall in front of the back four, as well as scoring four times as Cesena reached the promotion play-offs. The Seahorses failed to make it to Serie A but it was clear that Kessie was ready for the highest level.
Even at that early stage, there was also interest from overseas. Southampton, Schalke and Monaco all considered bids, Arsenal had already had Kessie watched twice last term, while the Ivorian's agent, George Atangana, claims a move to Sunderland fell through due to work permit issues. How the Black Cats could have done with a midfielder of Kessie's stature this season!
In truth, though, it's hard to think of many sides that wouldn't benefit from the Atalanta starlet's vast array of attributes.
Inevitably, given his position and nationality, he has been branded as the “new Yaya Toure” by the Italian media and, while it is still perhaps early to burden him with such a tag, the teenager certainly shares some of his compatriot’s characteristics.
The teenager boasts incredible power and upper body strength for someone so young – and it is not uncommon to see opponents bounce off him in physical confrontations. He is fast, confident on the ball and breaks up attacks as well as he breaks into the box.
He still has some growing up to do, though. He angered Gasperini in a 2-1 win over Torino by taking the ball off designated penalty taker Alberto Paloschi when Atalanta were awarded a penalty with eight minutes to go. Kessie converted the spot-kick but that was not the point, as far as Gasperini was concerned.
"He should not have taken it," he stated. "There's a designated list and it should have been Paloschi or [Alejandro] Gomez.
"He put himself in the middle of something he had no right to be in even as his team-mates were warning him not to get involved.
"Such things are not right. In the big teams, it doesn't work like this.
"If he wants to become a great player, he must grow also in this regard."
Kessie obviously still has some important lessons to learn but it is worth remembering that he is still only 20. Furthermore, he is, rather encouragingly, well aware that he has much to work on.
"The only thing that interests me at the moment is learning as much as possible from Gasperini," he stated on Sunday.
"I must improve tactically. I came to Italy for this reason. I think that this is the best league in the world from a tactical point of view.
"Here, a young guy learns more about the game, especially from a defensive perspective."
Whether he will remain in Italy is very much up in the air. Juventus' interest is well known and the Bianconeri have an excellent relationship with Atalanta, having signed Mattia Caldara in January only to agree to let the Dea keep the centre-half until next year.
However, Kessie has now admitted that he would welcome a move to England and that Old Trafford is his ideal destination. "I like the Premier League and, in particular, Manchester United, the club I dream of playing for. Chelsea are also a big club - nobody would turn them down - but I dream of United."
That is a nightmare for Juventus, though. Less than year after losing Paul Pogba to United, the Old Lady seems to be losing Kessie to them too.