- May 8, 2002
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At the Under-17 European Championships in 2015, France scorched through opposition rearguards before lifting the trophy in front of a crowd of 14,680 at Bulgaria’s Lazur Stadium.The audience were treated to an offensive masterclass as Germany were shredded 4-1, with a hat-trick from Odsonne Edouard – now at Celtic – doing the bulk of the damage.The sea of scouts from European clubs that analysed the tournament in microscopic detail, however, concluded France’s success was underpinned by a defence which was only breached twice.And the player that most intrigued talent spotters was Dayot Upamecano of Valenciennes.“He loves defending, getting the ball off opponents,” France’s youth coach Jean-Claude Giuntini noted of the centre-back at the time. “He’s still young and has room for improvement, but he has a great attitude and a lot of determination.”Manchester United had seen enough to pursue Upamecano, who dreamed of turning out at Old Trafford while growing up on a diet of cage football.Their proposal highlighted the prestige of playing for a global powerhouse, but fell short in the most crucial of ways.Thierry Martinez, Upamecano’s agent, explained to So Foot last February: “An intermediary met with us, but there was a difference between the project she presented us and what was actually going to happen.“A flat was promised, but that changed to a host family with only six return trips for his parents.“When you uproot a player at such a young age, that isn’t enough. I wanted Dayot to have a stable emotional balance off the pitch.”The 16-year-old plumped for the development-focused structure at Red Bull Salzburg instead in a deal worth £2million, explaining: “When you go to a really big club as a young player, it can be that case that you end of spending a lot of time on the substitutes’ bench.“The discussions with the management here in Austria convinced me. I went to see the training centre and the Arena with my parents, and you have to say that the facilities in Salzburg are really first-class.“I always felt really appreciated from the start and I was expecting to make a lot of appearances here.”Upamecano spent two years at Salzburg, initially gaining priceless professional experience with their feeder club Liefering in the Second League.The self-described “street footballer,” from Evreux’s La Madeleine estate, which also housed Ousmane Dembele, had to shake off his reticent demeanour to adjust to new surroundings and challenges.“I learned almost everything in Salzburg,” he recalled. “I developed; I learned to go forward, judge my movement better. As a person, I was a bit shy before, and it also made me grow in that sense. Leaving France was beneficial. I didn’t want to go to a very big club too soon.”Upamecano, like Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Aymeric Laporte, who were also recruited from youth centres in their mid-teens, never made a professional appearance in France.His progress at Salzburg was as rapid as his recovery pace, even starring as a defensive midfielder for the Austrian side before opting for the much-travelled route to RB Leipzig in January 2017.Clubs across the continent – most especially in England – began to intensify their due diligence on the talent of Bissau-Guinean descent that was consistently proving to be one of the best teenage prospects in the game.Upamecano’s physical attributes, speed and positional intelligence were already well known, but scouts were particularly interested by reports on his attitude.Romaric Bultel, the coach of Upamecano’s local club Evreux FC revealed of his formative football years: “He wasn’t a natural talent; the abilities he has now weren’t there when he came to us.“He worked hard and listened. He even worked with us outside of training, practicing ball control, working on his speed and tactical aspects of the game.“That’s how he continually overcame that initial deficit. He was a touching kid. Not particularly talkative, but when he did say something, it had an effect on you.”Upamecano became Leipzig’s youngest-ever Bundesliga player when he made his debut at Borussia Dortmund three years ago and has amassed over a century of appearances for the club.“I’ve not seen a faster centre-back and Dayot has an unbelievable physique,” said teammate Timo Werner of a defender that thrives with the thankless task of thwarting Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski.Yussuf Poulsen was in agreement over the Frenchman, who has been clocked at a top speed of 21.65 mph. “He is now the best centre back [in Germany],” the Leipzig forward said. “He is a top player, fast, clever good in a duel; it’s just very hard to get past him.”Upamecano, who wins 70% of his aerial battles in the league and has a 90% pass completion rate, is considered the finest defender of his age group in world football.Arsenal had a £50m bid for the 21-year-old rejected last summer, while Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona and United have made enquiries to his camp.Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann is aware it is difficult to keep a player, out of contract in 2021 and with a buyout clause of around £54m, when football’s transfer predators circle. “I’m not shocked by this,” he said of the scale of interest.“As long as we get in young players who want to take the next step with us, it is normal that they deal with larger clubs as soon as they are successful with us and develop even faster than we do. After all, we get good money in return that we can invest again.”Bundesliga analyst Keith Costigan unpacks why Upamecano ranks so highly for recruitment teams across Europe.“The first thing people will see are his physical attributes,” he told The Independent. “Even breaking through as a teenager, he could compete physically but his game is so much more than that.“When he initially got into the Leipzig team, he already had the confidence to get on the ball and try to build from the back.“That first season particularly he was prone to some big errors because he tended to try a little too much either by dribbling forward or attempting the more difficult pass.“He has improved his decision-making year on year and now has a better understanding of when and where to try things in possession.“He is powerful but is graceful when he drives forward. It just looks so natural for him to break a line with his ability to step into midfield and that makes him the perfect modern centre-back.“When he is in position defensively, he is almost impossible to beat because of his pace and power. Even when he is positionally caught out, his pace allows him to get back in and make a challenge.“He can still switch off mentally in games, but that is an area I’ve seen continued improvement in since he made his Leipzig debut. He has played in a back three and a back four already so is comfortable with either formation.”Despite the financial uncertainty facing the industry due to coronavirus, interest in Upamecano has not abated. That is unsurprising, given the kid that was hard to beat on the concrete pitches in the shadows of Evreux’s tower blocks is billed to become one of the very best in his position.Upamecano is destined for a blockbuster move, even if it is a delayed one.