Upamecano and his rise through the ranks at the Red Bull empire is a story of hard work and genuine talent.
RB Leipzig reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League last year. Of all the stats to have played a part, Dayot Upamecano was crucial throughout, especially in the quarter-finals in Lisbon.
Against one of the most seasoned strikers across Europe in Diego Costa, Upamecano held his own. Intercepting passes, winning aerial duels and getting to the ball ahead of his man with grace and composure. If it wasn’t already clear to the world, it became very clear then. The Frenchman was destined for the top.
Upamecano’s rise through the halls of Red Bull academies is a story of diligent effort and a steely determination. Leaving Valenciennes as a teenager, he moved away from his family to come to Austria. He was promised enough time to see them on a regular basis. Everything had to be just right for him to make that sacrifice.
Like Ralf Rangnick, there are those who have watched him do this from a very early age. And then there are others, who still sing praises of how he marshalled the Leipzig defence at the Estadio Jose Alavalade. Then again, he is only 21.
Finding a new home and following a philosophy
Moving away from home for young players is never easy and for Upamecano, making the choice of moving from Valenciennes to the Austrian Bundesliga could not have been an easy one. He was only 15. Although, there aren’t many who can say no when Rangnick comes knocking on your door.
Karan Tejwani is the author of Wings of Change, a book encapsulating the rise of the Red Bull in the world of football. He explains to First Time Finish what Red Bull look for when recruiting youngsters like Upamecano.
“The main philosophy for all Red Bull clubs since 2012, which was when Ralf Rangnick joined, was the three Ks: Kapital, Konzept and Kompetenz”, says Karan.
“The Konzept part matters because you will notice several similarities between the players they sign: athletic players, strong positional awareness and a willingness to take hits for the sake of the team.”
Upamecano’s talents and character is linekd with the third K, Kompetenz.
“The Kompetenz portion and Dayot Upamecano’s career are closely linked: in his initial days at Leipzig he struggled to adapt, while before that, he was in trouble with injuries while he was at Salzburg due to his immense physique. The three Ks are vital in the Red Bull structure and Upamecano is the perfect example of it working.” explains Karan.
Rapid progression from Liefering and Salzburg
Before establishing himself in the German Bundesliga, like many before him, Upamecano had to follow a set path for his development.
That path included gaining experience playing at FC Liefering and Red Bull Salzburg. Many of his current team-mates have followed the same path, however, with Upamecano, the progress was rapid and he was making all the right impressions.
While playing for Valenciennes and the French national team’s youth set-up, Upamecano was first noticed by scouts from RedBull.
Christopher Freund, the sporting director at Red Bull Salzburg recalled his first impressions on the player, speaking to First Time Finish.
His physical conditions, his power and his cleverness on the pitch have been extraordinary even at that young age.
He further explains, ” Our scouting department saw him playing for France youth national team and found out very soon, that he is a really special player. And we did really everything to make FC Red Bull Salzburg attractive for him.”
“Our analyse about him was very clear. And it was no surprise, that he acclimated in our club very quick.”
After signing for Salzburg in 2015, and rejecting serious interest from Manchester United back then, Upamecano spent an year at Liefering.
Standing out at Liefering
Tom Middler is the editor at The Other Bundesliga – an English site dedicated to Austrian football. He has been following Upamecano’s progress since his days at Liefering. Tom spoke to First Time Finish and explained how he stood out there.
“His rise through the ranks at Red Bull was extremely fast, but it’s also a testament to his own decision-making powers. He stood out at first, playing in Austria’s 2nd tier with Liefering. But after looking really solid he was brought up to the senior side after only a handful of games, which was a big statement from Salzburg.”, explains Tom.
Upamecano is recognized across Europe for his ability to play out from the back as much as his ability to defend. He is also brave in possession and looks to venture forward with the ball himself when the opportunity arises. This is partly down to how he was deployed in midfield, while at Salzburg.
“They deployed him at the time as a DMF. Although he has since switched back to the defence, he probably learned a lot in that DMF role, and reads the game in front of him better than he did before.”, recalls Tom.
There is a specific purpose for players to play at Liefering before moving on to the bigger Red Bull sides. It is all part of a greater learning curve.
“The main purpose of FC Liefering is to give players a chance to play against senior pros who have years and years of experience in the game and if players progress through quickly, it means they have the necessary qualities to play at the top level.” explains Karan.
Red Bull way aided Upamecano
Some of the very best talents in today’s football are products of the Red Bull academy and it’s philosophy. One established by the brilliant Ralf Rangnick himself. Players like Timo Werner, Konrad Laimer and Marcel Sabitzer are a few to name. They and others have emerged in recent years in the UEFA Champions League and the Bundesliga, Germand and Austrian.
Upamecano’s development has a lot to do with how his strengths were perfected and molded for the modern game. Pressing his opponents and making strong recovery runs. Winning his aerial duels, knowing when to hold and knowing when to be aggressive.
Picking out the line-breaking passes and helping his team evade pressure with his distribution.. These are some of the qualities that we’ve come to associate with Upamecano. The makings of his current version were there for the Red Bull coaches to see, from a very young age.
“A lot of his development is down to the Red Bull coaching, but that can be said for so many players at RB Leipzig or Salzburg.”
“In truth, it says more about him that he only played at Liefering and then even Salzburg for a very small number of games before moving on. He was a rough diamond, but made that impact so quickly, and showed a willingness to learn and follow instructions, as well as a ton of potential that he could be the defender he is today. The Red Bull coaches were not going to miss that!” explains Tom.
Strong personality also a big factor
For a player who looks up to Sergio Ramos as his idol, Upamecano does not share the Spaniard’s penchant for being over the top. On the contrary, he is quite down to earth, as this piece from The Athletic reveals.
The Frenchman has been subject to transfer rumours for the past year or so now, but he has remained unfazed by the limelight.
“For Upamecano, as mentioned, he had injury issues early at Salzburg, struggled to adapt initially at Leipzig. There were even complaints of him reaching training late once or twice. But going past that and showing the desired work ethic has seen him do so well since then.”, says Karan.
“I personally believe Ibrahima Konate (his team-mate who has had injury concerns lately) is more talented. But due to Upamecano’s supreme mentality, which is combined with his obvious natural and trained skill, has given him this edge. His performance against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League was arguably his best for the club. It was the perfect show of his composure, class in defense and he was unfazed in the biggest game in his career.”
Big move is inevitable
His composure on the big occasions is what stands out amongst everything else about him. It is one of the many qualities that makes him a desirable defender for every big team across Europe.
Upamecano signed a new contract with RB Leipzig in July this year. A new deal up to 2023, with a reported release clause of €42 million, according to Kicker. A move next summer is “almost inevitable” according to Karan and he isn’t alone in thinking that.
Whether it be Liverpool, Barcelona or Manchester United or anywhere else, with Upamecano, teams will flourish. At the age of 21, he still has his entire career ahead of him. It is an exciting prospect, to say the least.