Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate: RB Leipzig and France’s future in defence
They have a combined age of just 40 — the same as Bundesliga veteran Claudio Pizarro — and yet French duo Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate are proving that age is just a number at the heart of the RB Leipzig defence.
Upamecano has always been ahead of the curve, moving from French club Valenciennes to Red Bull Salzburg at the age of only 16, before joining sister outfit Leipzig in January 2017. He was quickly thrown in at the deep end, making his Bundesliga debut against Borussia Dortmund and playing 12 games during the 2016/17 Rückrunde as Leipzig finished second behind champions Bayern Munich in their maiden top-flight campaign.
“Dayot is already very mature,” France U21 coach Sylvain Ripoll told French sports daily L’Équipe in 2018, having called Upamecano up to his squad for the first time in March last year. “He’s playing in European competition and [is] among the most reliable defenders in the Bundesliga, and practically the leader of the Leipzig defence.”
A bold claim indeed, especially in light of the fact club captain Willi Orban also plays in the same position. However, injuries to the Hungary international opened the door for Upamecano's compatriot Konate to shine.
“Upa's like a brother to me,” Konate confided to bundesliga.com. “We became friends on the first day. I’ll never forget how he helped me in my first training sessions, so I could settle in quickly. And there’s good chemistry between us on the pitch — if one of us gets into trouble, the other's there to help out.”
While the two Frenchmen only started nine league games together in 2018/19 – largely due to Upamecano missing most of the Rückrunde with a knee injury – it is telling that former head coach Ralf Rangnick had no hesitation starting them in big games against Bayern, Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach – the teams that finished the season in the top five alongside Leipzig.
Moreover, Die Roten Bullen even ended up with the best defensive record in the division with just 29 goals conceded.
So impressive was Konate, in fact, that he was rewarded with a contract extension in January 2019, keeping him at the club until 2023. "Ibrahima's developed brilliantly here so far and his qualities have led to him becoming an integral member of our defence," Rangnick said when the announcement was made.
"He's only 19, but he already has a lot of experience in the Bundesliga and on the European stage. We're convinced of his huge potential and think that he'll take huge strides with us over the coming months and years. We're delighted to have agreed an early contract extension."
Strikers Yussuf Poulsen and Timo Werner were the only outfield players to play more Bundesliga minutes for Leipzig in 2018/19 than Konate, who became one of the first names on Rangnick’s teamsheet – and is likely to be a key player under new coach Julian Nagelsmann too. In his 28 league appearances, the centre-back won over 64 per cent of his challenges and completed 83 per cent of his passes, while he also popped up with a goal and an assist too.
Watch: Konate's goal in a 4-0 win over Fortuna Düsseldorf
Upamecano posted similar numbers in his limited outings last term, winning 62.5 per cent of all his duels and finding a teammate 86 per cent of the time.
A native of Evreux - where he became good friends with former Dortmund winger Ousmane Dembele as a boy - Upamecano is of Bissau-Guinean descent, but has made no secret of the fact that he dreams of representing France at senior level. While he has not yet been capped for Didier Deschamps’ world champions, the man Konate describes as “a very complete player” is sure to get his first opportunity with Les Bleus soon enough.
“All the best players are part of their national teams,” Upamecano told Téléfoot last year. “And I would love to be called up one day. I know I’m heading in the right direction, I just need to keep it up.”
He certainly has. Both he and Konate were cornerstones of the France U21 side beaten in the semi-finals of the 2019 UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Italy. Given such progress, it is hardly surprising that Konate has absolutely no regrets about his decision to pursue his development in Germany.
“The Bundesliga's very strong,” he said. “In the French championship, Paris Saint-Germain almost never have any problems against relegation-threatened teams — but over here, even Bayern have to work hard to get three points against sides in the bottom third. It’s also great to be playing in packed-out stadiums every weekend, there’s a brilliant atmosphere. Our fans are always there to support us, whether we win or lose.”
Injury may have kept Konate sidelined since Matchday 5, while Upamecano missed the first four games of the season due to injury, but before long, Leipzig's French-speaking defensive spine can be expected to return to help fuel their push for domestic and European glory.
As far as most RB supporters are concerned, counting Upamecano and Konate among their ranks is definitely one for the win column. Youthful prodigies with composure far beyond their years, you certainly haven’t heard the last of Leipzig’s defensive enfants terribles.
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