He's quick, strong and can start attacks just as smoothly as he nips them in the bud — is RB Leipzig's Dayot Upamecano the world's best young defender?
bundesliga.com takes a closer look at the French prodigy who is to the art of defending what his compatriot Kylian Mbappe is to attacking: the future.
Club: RB Leipzig
Country: France U21 (14 caps)
It would be easy to reduce Upamecano to his young age and man-mountain physique, but the 6'1" French centre-back has so much more to him than that.
Blessed with the sort of pace to rival the niftiest forward and the power to quickly shift his 198lb frame into high gear, Upamecano can also play a bit, and regularly shows it with Leipzig putting their faith in him after signing him as an 18-year-old from Red Bull Salzburg. "I spoke to Ousmane Dembele before joining Leipzig and he told me, 'Here, they're going to play you,'" said Upamecano, who rejected overtures from Manchester United to move to Germany on the advice of the former Borussia Dortmund star.
The Matchday 11 win at Hertha Berlin showcased Upamecano's abilities on the ball: no-one completed more than the 72 passes he made. His 90 per cent pass completion in the 2019/20 season is stratospheric and symptomatic of a man who "played everywhere, forward, midfielder…" before he settled in defence at Valenciennes, his first professional club.
"He loves defending, getting the ball off opponents," France youth coach Jean-Claude Giuntini said of Upamecano. He generally does get the ball too, winning 66 per cent of his challenges, including an imposing 81 per cent in the air.
Plays a bit like: Marcel Desailly
Desailly was nicknamed 'The Rock' for a reason. Upamecano shares the same build as France's 1998 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2000 winner, and is equally the sort of player on whom a side can be built: solid, reliable, immovable.
Desailly's game was based on strength, speed and anticipation, all qualities that came naturally to the imposing Frenchman. But he would not have been such a success at Marseille, AC Milan and Chelsea, nor probably even scouted by his first club Nantes — a club steeped in a tradition of playing football 'the right way' — if he didn't have the ability to ensure his passes found Zinedine Zidane far more often than Row Z.
For France, it is a case of deja vu with Upamecano, who will surely — soon — follow his silverware-studded predecessor into the world champions' senior squad. "I dream of becoming one of the best defenders in the world one day," Upamecano has stated. Are you watching Didier Deschamps? Of course you are.
Did you know?
Upamecano's first name in full is 'Dayotchanculle'. "It was the name of my great-grandfather, my father gave it to me as a tribute," explained the Leipzig defender, who grew up in the Madeleine neighbourhood of Evreux where Dembele was a friend.
"When there wasn't any school, we went to the local pitches," Upamecano remembers. "We lived in a neighbourhood of footballers, with a little stadium where we had big tournaments, and for two or three hours, we gave our all."
What they're saying
"When I saw Dayot for the first time, I said to myself, 'It's a child in an adult's body'" Olivier Bijotat, Valenciennes' youth academy director
"[Dayot] Upamecano and [Ibrahima] Konate always start at the back for me." Diego Demme on his FIFA team selection
"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
"He is now the best centre-back. He is a top player, fast, clever, good in a challenge; it's just very hard to get past him." Yussuf Poulsen
"If there are four better centre-backs than Dayot Upamecano, I want to see them." Ralf Rangnick when his young star was not called up for a France U21 game. He sent a scouting team which eventually led to the signing of Ibrahima Konate.