RB Leipzig's Dayot Upamecano heads an impressive array of French defenders flourishing in the Bundesliga. - © imago
RB Leipzig's Dayot Upamecano heads an impressive array of French defenders flourishing in the Bundesliga. - © imago
bundesliga

Upamecano, Zagadou, Konate, Todibo: France's defence of the future, made in the Bundesliga

Dayot Upamecano, Jean-Clair Todibo, Ibrahima Konate and Dan-Axel Zagadou head a fabulously gifted group of French Bundesliga-based defenders who could provide the FIFA World Cup winners France with a solid platform for the next decade.

Perhaps France coach Didier Deschamps knows this already, but join bundesliga.com as we take a look at the sheer abundance of French defensive talent honing their craft in Germany…

Dayot Upamecano (RB Leipzig)

"I've not seen a faster centre-back, and Dayot has an unbelievable physique. He can become as good as Jerome Boateng if he can keep improving." Timo Werner should know what he's talking about as he faces his man-mountain teammate in training every day.

Werner's speed is a weapon singularly feared by Bundesliga defenders, so the Germany international's praise of Upamecano's pace is not to be taken lightly. But the Leipzig centre-back's fleet of foot is just one of the aspects that make him arguably the best young centre-back in world football.

His imposing physique enables him to shackle even the most robust of opponents, winning nearly 63 per cent of his challenges this season, and almost 70 per cent of aerial duels.

Watch: Upamecano helps Leipzig muzzle Lewandowski & Bayern

But the 15-time France U21 defender fulfils more than just the role of Bundesliga bruiser.

Like France's 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000-winning centre-back Laurent Blanc, Upamecano played further up the pitch alongside and against ex-Borussia Dortmund man Ousmane Dembele growing up in Normandy. It still shows now as he boasts a pass completion rate in excess of 90 per cent.

"He is now the best centre-back," said Leipzig teammate Yussuf Poulsen, another man tasked with taking on Upamecano as Julian Nagelsmann drills his squad on a daily basis. "He is a top player, fast, clever, good in a challenge; it's just very hard to get past him."

Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)

"I was ambitious and I aspired to more than PSG offered me," said Zagadou explaining why - after six years moving through Paris Saint-Germain's youth academy to the fringes of the first team - he opted to leave the French capital in 2017. "At that time, the club wasn't playing a lot of youngsters."

The same could not be said for Dortmund, who threw the 18-year-old in at the deep end on Matchday 1 of the 2017/18 season. Compatriot Abdou Diallo was previously the France U21 captain but he made the journey in the opposite direction last summer. Zagadou - now up to 40 Bundesliga appearances - is part of the reason he was allowed to go. Zagadou's height, physicality and cultured left-foot meant Diallo's departure barely made a dent.

Dan-Axel Zagadou (r.) is learning from a master: Borussia Dortmund teammate Mats Hummels (l.) - imagoimages

Zagadou made his U21 debut for Les Bleuets early in the 2019/20 campaign, slotting into the centre of defence alongside Upamecano while Dortmund boss Lucien Favre has also increasingly shown his faith in the 6'4" defender, who has flourished with the help of veteran Mats Hummels in either a back three or four.

"He helps a lot, he's got a lot of experience and he's won a lot," said Zagadou of the 2014 World Cup winner and five-time Bundesliga champion. "You can feel it on the pitch, he speaks and directs us. It's good for the team to have him."

Favre is just as impressed with Zagadou.

"He has a very good left foot. In France, he played as a number six, and you can see that," added Favre, who noticed what Zagadou's 93 per cent pass completion ratio proves. "He's very intelligent. Of course, he still has room for improvement, but that's normal as he's only 20. He's doing some really good work right now."

Ibrahima Konate (RB Leipzig)

Ralf Rangnick was confused: Why was Upamecano not getting picked by France's U21 boss Sylvain Ripoll? "If there are four better centre-backs than Dayot Upamecano, I want to see them," said the former Leipzig coach. He sent along a scouting team, and they found a French centre-back who was at least as good: Konate.

Seven months Upamecano's junior, Konate made his U21 debut almost a year after the man who became his club teammate when he left Sochaux to join Leipzig in summer 2017, just six months after Upamecano had been prised away from Red Bull Salzburg.

After featuring regularly in France's second tier, Konate could have taken unkindly to Leipzig dropping him down into their U19 side. "A lot of players would have cracked in my situation," he said. "I've always had my family behind me, they told me to be patient. I understand why people might ask when you go from Sochaux to Leipzig, but I've always had a steely mental strength."

The Paris-born youngster might have started out with the kids, but very soon he migrated to the big boys' playground. He was a permanent first-team fixture alongside Upamecano until the muscle injury that limited him to just the first five matches of the 2019/20 campaign. But a name we'll hear more of in the future? Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski certainly thinks so.

"Leipzig have two really good centre-backs in Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate," said the Bundesliga's all-time foreign-born leading scorer. That's good enough for us.

Jean-Clair Todibo (Schalke)

It speaks to France's sheer depth of defensive talent that Todibo is yet to even make his U21 for his country.

That is surely only a matter of time, however. You don't get signed by Barcelona after just 10 Ligue 1 appearances without having potential by the barrel load.

Schalke have given Jean-Clair Todibo the chance to showcase his talents in the Bundesliga. - Neundorf/Kirchner-Media via www.imago-images.de/imago images/Kirchner-Media

He has featured five times in the Bundesliga since joining Schalke on loan in January - the same number of competitive games he played for Barca following his January 2019 move from Toulouse - and has been impressive with the Royal Blues conceding only once in his two starts so far.

Not bad for a player who, when he was just nine years old, was run over by a car and it was feared he might never walk properly again, never mind play football. According to Bayern and Germany legend Lothar Matthäus, there is a lot more to come.

"Todibo is the best centre-back I’ve seen in a long time," said Germany's 1990 World Cup-winning captain. "He would be a good reinforcement for Schalke and an enrichment for the Bundesliga. At 20, he's incredibly calm, he always finds interesting solutions."

Nordi Mukiele (RB Leipzig)

Compared to Upamecano and Konate, Mukiele was an old-timer when he joined Leipzig in May 2018 at the age of 20!

He had also done something his two compatriots had not in playing in France's top flight. After first honing his skills at Paris FC, he joined Laval and featured in Ligue 2 before 18 months at Montpellier saw him make 50 Ligue 1 appearances. He's now rapidly approaching that number at Leipzig.

Nordi Mukiele has developed into one of the Bundesliga's most effective full-backs at Leipzig. - Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty Images

With age taking him beyond the U21 team's reach, the next step internationally is into Deschamps' senior side where Bayern Munich's Benjamin Pavard will provide stiff opposition in the battle for a starting role.

But Leipzig boss Nagelsmann believes his right-back has the tools to offer equally tough competition to the Bundesliga champions' World Cup winner.

"I really like him, I have a great connection with him. I know how to handle him and take care of him," said Nagelsmann, who has handed Mukiele 15 starts in his 18 Bundesliga appearances this season. "Nordi has incredible potential."

Evan N'Dicka (Eintracht Frankfurt)

N'Dicka was called up to the France U21 squad in November and the 20-year-old will surely feature frequently in the future after becoming a Bundesliga regular at Frankfurt.

Another player from the outskirts of Paris, N'Dicka's football abilities and physical potential - which has expanded into a formidable 6'3" frame - took him to Auxerre, a club famous for nurturing youthful talent.

"Auxerre are known for their good work with young players, so we're getting a player that is well educated tactically," stated Frankfurt sporting director Fredi Bobic when N'Dicka was signed in 2018.

He had in fact made just 14 second division appearances in his home country, but proved Bobic - who also called his new 18-year-old signing "very mature for his age" - right almost immediately.

N'Dicka did not look out of place as he made 27 Bundesliga appearances in his debut season, and though the 2019/20 campaign started slowly for him, the French defender was a permanent fixture at left-back before the season was suspended.

"I honestly have to say that I was surprised by his development," said Frankfurt boss Adi Hütter, who has also employed N'Dicka at centre-back. "Evan has developed phenomenally. He's very attentive in the analysis of his own game. He's very modest and always takes a lot on board."

Ronaël Pierre-Gabriel (Mainz)

When Mainz signed Pierre-Gabriel from Monaco in 2018, they were no doubt hoping the powerfully built full-back would have a similar impact to Diallo, who had made exactly the same move two years earlier.

He had initially come to their attention when - aged just 17 - he made his Ligue 1 debut with Saint-Etienne, the club he had joined after standing out in the ranks of a Paris-based academy.

Ronaël Pierre-Gabriel (r.) is starting to make himself at home at Mainz. - imago images/Picture Point LE

After 35 top-flight appearances for the record French champions, he joined Monaco in 2018, but only flirted with the first team, and it has been a similar story at Mainz where he has been in and out of the side in 2019/20.

He has made just eight Bundesliga appearances for the 05ers so far, but five of those came in the last eight matches before the season was halted, and he started all of the last three, giving him cause for optimism.

"To really get into the Bundesliga, you need to play several games in a row," said the 21-year-old. "But that will come with time."