Not many people can claim they were boyhood friends with Barcelona’s new boy Ousmane Dembélé, and even fewer can claim to have had a nearly homologous career path. That is an extremely precise and dubious assertion. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who fits such a specific mold, but Dayotchanculle Upamecano is just that man. It was at one of Upamecano’s youth clubs, Évreux FC, where he met Dembélé. Although Ousmane is much more of a household name despite his relatively recent breakthrough, it takes absolutely nothing away from the potential of RB Leipzig’s young center back.
Dayot Upamecano was born on October 27, 1998, in Normandy. It was at his hometown club where he first attracted the attention of French scouts, and his exceptional talent was eventually spotted by Valenciennes FC. He was just a 15-year-old joining a Ligue 1 side, a testament to his idiosyncratic aptitude. He worked his way up the ranks in his home nation, quickly transforming into a hot product of Les Athéniens’ youth team. Displaying talent unparalleled by his peers, a move was on the cards for Upamecano. Interest flooded in from a multitude of reputable clubs, including Manchester United; however, he bravely elected for a move to Red Bull Salzburg, and his senior career commenced.
As a wise man once proclaimed, “fortune favors the bold.” This Latin proverb is epitomized by Upamecano’s decision to join the Austrian side, a decision that brought its fair share of scrutiny. After signing for just about £2M, the youngster went on loan to FC Liefering, one of Salzburg’s feeder clubs. As a 17-year-old, he already had a whole season (21 appearances) under his belt. Although at the ripe age of 17, Upamecano played his second senior season at Salzburg, an attestation of his phenomenal skill set.
Extraordinarily, Upamecano played an instrumental role in Salzburg’s 2016-17 season. Not falling victim to immaturity or a lack of experience, the French center back thrived in the Austrian first division. However, his success at such a young age came as no surprise to the ones who knew him best. His rapid development only aided his adjustment to first-division football, and soon enough, the 18-year-old had outgrown the constraints of the Austrian league.
A £9m fee saw Upamecano move to affiliated club RB Leipzig, who were halfway into their maiden season in the Bundesliga. It may seem like a hefty fee for a teenager, but it has already started to pay dividends.
The step up in quality that Upamecano had to make in the middle of just his second senior season was an extremely difficult one. The sheer gulf in class between the German and Austrian first divisions is massive, and adapting to a new club mid-season is strenuous in and of itself. Arriving at the Bundesliga debutants in January, he rapidly established himself as a vital squad player in Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side.
The increased tactical demands and heightened competitiveness were elements of the Bundesliga that Upamecano was unaccustomed to, but the 18-year-old was coolness personified in his impressive adaptation to German football. His first half-semester in the Bundesliga was a perfect learning period for the French youngster, and he should be targeting regular first-team football for the 2017-18 season.
Editor’s note: This article was written in late August. Nobody, not even the author, could have predicted such a rapid rise into the first team for Upamecano, who has started in five out of Leipzig’s first six games this season.
With Leipzig in the Champions League, Hassenhüttl will be focused on rotation, a perfect opportunity for Upamecano to take the bull by its horns. Football has evolved into a flashy game. The likes of Allan Saint Maximin and Kylian Mbappé exemplify the evolution of the modern game, electrifying wingers who are equally versed in dribbling as they are in running. The unique nature of football creates mass circulation of money, and teenagers who have been playing professional football for just a few months can now cost upwards of £100M. In the coming years, £9M may seem like a bargain for a 17-year-old, if Upamecano blooms into the ripe talent he has been tipped to become.
There is a multitude of reasons why plenty of European clubs are licking their chops when they hear the name “Dayot Upamecano.” Upamecano displayed a measured, yet aggressive approach to defending in his multiple appearances in the Bundesliga. His 6’1 frame enables him to overpower most forwards in the Bundesliga, demonstrated by his 59.32% of aerial duels won. However, crucially, his large frame doesn’t hinder him in other facets of his game, such as his speed or agility. He also exhibits maturity beyond his years, a vital attribute for a teenage center back. His maturity allows him to avoid silly mental breakdowns and unnecessary errors, and will encourage Hassenhüttl to give him more minutes this season.
Named Bundesliga Rookie of the Month winner for March, Upamecano made waves in the German footballing scene. His dominant playing style means he’s hard to miss, and so far he’s been up to the challenge of top flight football. A physical specimen, Upamecano is certainly strong enough to compete with the best of the best; however, he must develop tactically, especially if he hopes to endure the rigor of German football and beyond.
A simplistic summary of Upamecano’s playing style can be derived from his comments on Raphaël Varane.
“I look up to the way [he] plays, but I do not try to imitate him, every player is different.”
In fact, Upamecano’s playing style parallels that of Varane’s in quite a wholistic manner–he epitomizes the modern center back. He excels in 1v1 battles, displays admirable determination, and shows composure in high-intensity settings. His speed and agility are x-factors of his game, especially when considering his pure physical stature. Such height, combined with good pace and movement, is key for dealing with a variety of different forwards. His conjunctive and imposing style of play can only improve, and his skillset could provide him with a platform to become one of the best center backs in the game.
Upamecano can also alternate between a creator and a destroyer, adept in both passing and tackling. He can also operate as a defensive midfielder–a role he grew accustomed to at Salzburg–if need be. His imposing stature is an advantage down the center of the pitch, and his high efficiency is complementary to Leipzig’s attacking style. Although his style of play can put his team into danger if not careful, it is often successful, more often than not.
The 18-year-old excels in tackling, intercepting, and heading, three vital features for a traditional center back. However, couple this with his tactical maturity, and you get a youngster whose playing style is extremely unique. His composure on the ball is special for a teenager, and he exudes an air of confidence with his bold style. Although his game still has several steps to go (especially his ability to defend collectively), his first few months in the Bundesliga has shown he has a huge future ahead of him.
It’s not often 18-year-olds are given so much responsibility, but Upamecano has handled it admirably. With a flurry of European giants coveting his signature, it will be interesting to see how he performs for Leipzig this season, and whether he can validate the hype. If his career trajectory continues along its path, expect Upamecano to be leading the French backline as early as 2020.
By: Brandon Duran/@Alcxntara6