We are still very early into the 2022/23 football season, but we’ve already witnessed the emergence of a talented young centre-back playing at the highest level. Southampton’s Armel Bella-Kotchap has caught many an eye with his displays this season and, at just 20 years old, many are speculating where he could end up after a few years fine-tuning his game at Southampton — that is how quickly he’s made a positive impression in England. I have no doubt that the German national team will be keeping a close eye on the young centre-back as they transition into a new era themselves.
The former VfL Bochum defender is a physical marvel. Standing at 1.90m tall, he towers over most other players on the football pitch. He balances out this tall frame with incredible strength and speed in his muscular build — in that respect, he resembles another centre-back who was very successful at Southampton before earning a big-money move: Virgil van Dijk.
Bella-Kotchap possesses impressive recovery pace and mobility over both short and long distances, making him an excellent cover defender should the ball end up behind the backline. It’s rare for a defender to have as large a frame as the young German whilst also possessing the speed to keep up with the quickest forwards in the league.
It comes as no surprise that his height leads to him being aerially dominant. According to FBREF.com, over the past year, Bella-Kotchap has won 69.8% of his aerial duels, ranking him in the 82nd percentile among centre-backs in Europe’s big 5 leagues. An impressive return, especially for a player with such a vast array of methods for defending the opposition.
A footballer’s physique may have the potential to be enhanced to a degree, but it is largely genetic and the result of work done at a younger age. Bella-Kotchap has physical attributes that are difficult to find and even more difficult to develop.
In addition to his physical gifts, the Germany U21 international reads the game extremely well, especially at such a young age. FBREF.com has him ranked in the 96th percentile among centre-backs for interceptions per 90 in Europe’s big 5 leagues.
He is genuinely elite at disrupting play and putting out fires before they develop. He evidently avoids requiring his physical gifts to break up play, instead prioritising the more proactive approach of stopping an opposition attack in its tracks.
Much like with NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo’s famous block against the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 NBA finals, Bella-Kotchap can hedge and shift to deter multiple options at once. This was on full display during Southampton’s recent league game away to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
During this sequence, Bella-Kotchap notices two separate dangerous passes that can potentially be played into the 18-yard box. As such, he motions towards the opposition forward near the edge of the box in order to cut out that particular pass. He then immediately shifts his body and blocks the cross towards the far post. This is an incredible display of defensive nous in a dangerous situation and puts on full display his ability to read the game.
The Paris-born defender possesses a unique combination of high-level physicality and the ability to sniff out danger immediately. This gives him the ability to be equally effective in both a high block and low block as he can defend spaces and opponents in numerous ways.
Where his game may still need considerable work is in how he operates in possession. He’s not a particularly adventurous or progressive passer and can be a bit careless with the ball at times, therefore there is room for improvement in that area.
That said, he does appear comfortable on the ball, he just generally chooses more sideways short passes, or launches the ball long which has a lower success rate, especially when one considers the fact that Southampton don’t play with a tall, dominant target-man in attack.
It does appear that he simply prefers to play his passes in a safer manner, therefore this is an area in which he’ll need to grow if he wants to play for a possession-based Champions League calibre side in the future.
He still tries to make himself a presence in advanced positions with occasional strong carries into the final third which put pressure on the opposition forwards and midfielders to track these runs. If these carries can become a more regular occurrence and he can add progressive and penetrative passes to his arsenal, Bella-Kotchap can develop into a legitimate threat in possession.
At his age, Armel Bella-Kotchap has plenty of time to grow as a footballer and raise his stock both domestically and internationally. Colossal performances against English giants Manchester United and Chelsea caught many an eye and those unaware of the German starlet quickly began to take notice.
Whilst it’s still early days, Bella-Kotchap is bursting with potential and his future certainly looks bright. Southampton paid €10 million to acquire the talented centre-back from VfL Bochum — in 2-3 years, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Saints received a Virgil Van Dijk-esque fee in return for him.
By: Lebohang Mwamuka / @lebzygold
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matt Watson / Southampton FC