Weekly Wonderkids: Episode 15

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One of Football Index’s unique attributes as a platform is that it allows traders to pick and choose which players to buy and sell, which to stockpile, and which to keep an eye on in the future. Traders can spot a promising footballer, buy stock in said player, and watch them flourish as the player’s profile grows on the world stage. If you truly believe that a teenage prospect who’s only registered a handful of substitute appearances will go on to become a Golden Boot winner, you have the power to put your money where your mouth is and add him to your portfolio.

Each Monday, Zach Lowy will analyse a new U-23 player who Football Index traders should consider buying in a new weekly series called “Weekly Wonderkids.” With this series, you’ll be able to discover which youngsters you should place your trust in – and money – and why.

Name: Dayot Upamecano

Age: 21

Club: RB Leipzig

On May 19, 2009, Red Bull GmbH purchased the playing rights of German fifth-division side SSV Markranstädt, and founded RasenBallsport Leipzig. It was Red Bull’s fifth footballing entity, after Red Bull Salzburg, the New York Red Bulls, Red Bull Brasil, and Red Bull Ghana. RB Leipzig’s founders promised its fans that they would be playing top-flight football within eight years, and thanks to their monumental financial backing from the energy drink magnate, they reached that goal ahead of schedule. Leipzig zoomed through the lower tiers of German football before gaining promotion to the top flight in 2016.

Today, Leipzig are chasing domestic and international glory; they’re five points behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race, and they’ve advanced to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. They are a young and exciting team coached by a young and exciting manager in Julian Nagelsmann. Out of all of the starters in Nagelsmann’s line-up, the youngest is Dayot Upamecano.

At 21 years old, Upamecano has emerged into one of the most coveted centre-backs in Europe, and with a €60 million release clause, it’s only a matter of time before he gets his next big move.

Early Beginnings in France

The son of Bissau-Guinean immigrants, Upamecano joined his hometown team Évreux FC 2007 immediately after the club was established following a merger between Évreux AC and ALM Évreux. He played in the same academy as Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembélé, who was a year ahead of him.

At 15, he made the move to Valenciennes, a three-and-a-half-hour drive eastward, near the border with Belgium. While he impressed whenever he did get a chance to play, Upamecano’s time at Valenciennes was marred by injuries. His body had matured into that of an adult, and he was still getting used to the demands necessitated by his mature physique.

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🔜 Équipe de France Espoirs 🇫🇷

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Nevertheless, that didn’t stop the likes of Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Manchester City from pursuing his signature, but Upamecano rejected the money and allure for a more modest destination: Red Bull Salzburg.

Development in Austria

With the promise of playing time, Upamecano joined Salzburg on July 13, 2015 for €2.2 million, a mouth-watering fee for a 16-year-old. A week later, he made his first-team debut in a preseason friendly against Bayer Leverkusen.

“He anticipated almost everything,” said then Salzburg manager Peter Zeidler. “He wasn’t the biggest, the fastest, or the most technical player, but eight times out of ten, he was the first to the ball.”

In order to develop at the professional level, he was sent on to second-division side FC Liefering, which has served as Salzburg’s feeder club since 2012. While he mostly played for Liefering that season, he made his starting debut for Salzburg on March 19, 2016, before jetting off for Bulgaria, where he would lead France to victory in the U-17 European Championships. He returned to Austria with the goal of becoming a starter for Salzburg.

After the deadline day sale of Martin Hinteregger to Augsburg, Upamecano’s path to the starting line-up became a lot clearer, and soon, Upamecano was one of the first names on the team sheet. While manager Óscar García mostly utilized him as a holding midfielder at the start, he soon played him in his natural position of central defence by late October, preferring the teenager to Duje Ćaleta-Car. It didn’t take long before the likes of Barcelona and Arsenal were chasing after his signature, but it was RB Leipzig who won the race for the Frenchman, signing him for €10 million.

Growth in Saxony

Upamecano became the 13th player since 2011 to leave Salzburg for Leipzig, joining former teammates Naby Keïta and Bernardo in Saxony. He made his debut on February 4, coming on for Rani Khedira against Borussia Dortmund. During the home stretch of the season, he became a regular starter, filling in for the injured Willi Orban. Leipzig finished second in their first-ever Bundesliga season, qualifying for the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League group stage.

He became a full-fledged starter the following season, causing Leipzig to sell seasoned defender Marvin Compper to Celtic in January. Leipzig disappointed in terms of results, finishing sixth in the league, and finishing third in their Champions League group, before crashing out of the Europa League at the hands of Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli. In contrast to other players who underperformed, Upamecano blossomed into one of the most promising centre-backs in Europe under manager Ralph Hasenhüttl, impressing with his aggression, physical power, and anticipation.

The next season was somewhat of a transitional season for the club, with Ralf Rangnick serving as a ‘lame duck’, serving as a stopgap manager before Nagelsmann took over the following summer. Whilst Leipzig struggled going forward in the absence of Keïta, who joined Liverpool, they were impenetrable at the back, conceding the fewest goals in the league (29). Upamecano played a vital role in their defensive solidity during the Hinrunde, establishing himself as a rock at the back despite his precocious age. However, his season was cut short in January when he suffered severe damage to his knee cartilage during a training session.

Upamecano returned to match fitness in late May, and earned a call-up to the 2019 U-21 European Championships. He started alongside Leipzig teammate Ibrahim Konaté for Les Espoirs, conceding just one goal throughout the group stage. However, they got a rude awakening in the semifinal, when a Spain side led by Mikel Oyarzabal tore them apart in a 4-1 drubbing.

He suffered another knee injury in August which kept him out for the first few weeks of the season, but he regained his starting spot following the injury of Konaté, who has been sidelined with a torn muscle fibre since October 3.

Upamecano has played the best football of his career under Nagelsmann, shutting down the likes of Artem Dzyuba, Marcus Thuram, and Robert Lewandowski. With the Frenchman refusing to renew his contract, Leipzig must either sell him this year or risk losing him for free in 2021.

Next Big Move?

Given his performances this season, it won’t be a surprise to see a team trigger his €60 million release clause this summer; the only question is: who? Barcelona have been closely following him since his time at Valenciennes, and given Gerard Piqué’s age and Samuel Umtiti’s injury woes, they may be inclined to splurge the cash to secure one of the hottest centre-backs in Europe.

With Javi Martínez and Jérôme Boateng set to depart Bavaria this summer, and with both Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernandez suffering long-term injuries this season, Bayern Munich may decide to swoop in for Upamecano. But don’t discount the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal from joining the increasingly crowded race to sign the Frenchman.

If you aren’t completely sold on Upamecano yet, that’s fine. He can be prone to costly errors, he can be slow on the turn, and he’s a tad clunky when bringing the ball out from the back. Moreover, his knee is a question mark that will be scrutinized even more closely during the summer.

However, he’s still just 21 years old, and he’s proving himself against some of the toughest strikers in the continent. A player who can hold his own against the nastiest target men in the Champions League, who can drive forward with the ball and break the lines with his passing, and who can defend a high line with remarkable leadership.

If he can stay clear of injuries, expect Upamecano to evolve into one of the best central defenders of this decade.

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