They have a combined age of just 37 — which is two years younger than Bundesliga veteran Claudio Pizarro — and yet French teenagers 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.
“Dayot is already very mature,” France Under-21 coach Sylvain Ripoll recently told French sports daily L’Équipe, having called Upamecano up to his squad for the first time in March. “He’s playing in European competition and fighting for a top-three finish in one of the world’s biggest leagues. He’s among the most reliable defenders in the Bundesliga, and practically the leader of the Leipzig defence.”
A bold claim indeed, when Upamecano’s habitual centre-back partner is none other than club captain Willi Orban. But a bothersome ankle injury has kept the German defender sidelined on more than one occasion this season, giving 18-year-old Konate the chance to shine alongside his 19-year-old compatriot.
“Upa is 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 is there to help out.”
While the two Frenchmen have only started five league games together this term, two of them just happened to be against newly-crowned champions Bayern. It says a great deal about Ralph Hasenhüttl that he was happy to entrust his young charges with such a perilous mission — and his faith was rewarded as Leipzig beat the Bavarian giants for the first time in their history on Matchday 27.
Watch: Highlights of Leipzig's 2-1 win over Bayern
“The coach trusts his players and puts a lot of emphasis on one-to-one conversations,” Konate explained. “If you give everything in training, you’ll be rewarded for it. It speaks volumes that he was willing to set up with me and Dayot, 18 and 19, against a top team like Bayern. Not many coaches would be so brave.”
Like Salzburg, Leipzig have a reputation for developing young players, which is one of the reasons Upamecano turned down interest from French giants Marseille to make the switch to Austria and then Germany. But Hasenhüttl would not have started the two teenagers against Bayern if they didn’t have the talent to match their steely determination.
“I’m obviously delighted with Konate and Upamecano’s development,” the Austrian enthused. “They’ve made huge strides over the past year and gained invaluable experience.”
Only goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi and striker Timo Werner have played more Bundesliga minutes for Leipzig this season than Upamecano, who has become one of the first names on Hasenhüttl’s teamsheet. In his 23 league appearances, the centre-back has won over 60 per cent of his challenges and completed 89 per cent of his passes, while he also popped up with his first top-flight goal in the 2-0 win over Augsburg on Matchday 22.
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 burst onto the scene a little too late to be included in Didier Deschamps’ 2018 FIFA World Cup plans, 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 recently told Téléfoot. “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.”
While Upamecano has become an integral part of Leipzig’s first-choice XI, Konate remains third in the pecking order behind his compatriot and Orban, although he has still made 15 appearances in all competitions this season. The 18-year-old has made stunning progress since arriving from FC Sochaux last summer, and more than played his part as Leipzig limited Bayern to just one first-half shot before holding on for that famous win in March.
Konate and Upamecano were also given the keys to the Leipzig defence for last week’s UEFA Europa League quarter-final first leg against Marseille, and helped their side keep a vital clean sheet in a 1-0 win at the Red Bull Arena. Though the former could make way for Orban in the second leg on Thursday, he has absolutely no regrets about his decision to pursue his development in Germany.
“The Bundesliga is very strong,” Konate emphasised. “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.”
As far as most RB supporters are concerned, counting Upamecano and Konate among their ranks is definitely one for the win column. Teenage prodigies with composure far beyond their years, you certainly haven’t heard the last of Leipzig’s defensive enfants terribles.