The Dayot Upamecano transfer saga has finally been closed. In a way only they know how, Bayern Munich swept beneath the prying hands of Europe to claim another domestic talent.
In hindsight, thinking anything to the contrary might have happened now seems naïve.
If the race to sign one lauded French talent has ended, another will begin soon. The eyes of the most powerful scan the landscape for the next great centre back. Eyes of Sauron scouring the rugged course of Mordor for the rarest of weapon. If not Upamecano, then who?
Jules Koundé is who. A month younger than the newest Bayern recruit, the baby faced Koundé is almost certainly the subject of the next great transfer hunt. The German market, and allure of the European champions, made the fee negotiable and somewhat lower than expected for Upamecano. Koundé has the aura of player that many will pay double for.
Jumping forward to his moment
The Europa League Final of 2020 was momentous for numerous reasons. A 3-2 scoreline, Sevilla’s reclaiming of the crown, Romelu Lukaku hunting down Ronaldo’s Inter record. It was a thrilling occassion made all the more so for the performance of Jules Koundé.
A twenty one year old Koundé had already featured in eight Europa League games that year. In a route that took Sevilla to the final in Cologne, Koundé had already encountered Edin Dzeko, Raul Jimenez and Anthony Martial as centre forward threats.
The final itself however resembled a different challenge altogether. Since his arrival at Internazionale, Lukaku had been reborn as one of Europe’s most lethal strikers. The Belgian needed one goal in the final to tie the great Ronaldo Nazario’s Inter record of thirty four goals in a season.
His strike partner that day, Lautaro Martinez, represents a different threat. Squat but equally powerful, Martinez made up for in pressing and creativity what he lacked in goals. The pair together represent one of the most tasking endeavours a centre back can endure.
Koundé’s senior centre back partner had a torrid evening. Diego Carlos is, mildly put, a proactive centre back. Within five minutes of the final’s opening whistle, Carlos had hacked Lukaku down and conceded a penalty. That he rolled on the floor proclaiming injury on his part only added to the unsightliness. Time and again, Carlos sprinted from his position to close down one of Martinez or Lukaku, leaving his teenage partner isolated with the other.
Rather than panic or fluster, Koundé produced an authoritative performance belying his years.
With Carlos haring from his post at every opportunity, it was on Koundé to play anchor. Inter were poor on the night as Sevilla’s explosive full backs ran riot. The aggressiveness of Sergio Reguillon and Jesus Navas was undoubtedly integral to their success. Yet the high and attacking nature of the two meant that Koundé’s positioning, and receptiveness to danger, were paramount.
The young Frenchman attempted only one pressure all game, holding his positioning whilst Carlos attempted six. His nine recoveries were a game high, whilst he attempted three aerial duels at a 100% success rate.
In possession, Koundé showed elegance and poise. Reguillon and Navas were destroyers in chief, making five progressive passes and seventeen progressive carries between them. This made Koundé’s job easy; to channel passes out wide and overload the wide spaces.
Two Luuk de Jong goals plus a Lukaku own goal would be enough for Sevilla to triumph for a sixth time. In a game of five goals, it is perhaps rare for a centre back to receive plaudits. Yet Koundé has a manner that commands respect. The chaos of Carlos besides him perhaps amplified his own calm. Against a top strike pairing, Koundé was resolute whilst retaining elegance in possession. Such traits are enough to make one sit up and take note.
A French backstory
Born in Paris in November 1998, Koundé would play at youth level for various regional sides before joining Bordeaux. There, aged nineteen, he would make his professional debut and quickly feature prominently in the senior set up. In his first full season, Bordeaux would finish sixth and qualify for the Europa League.
The following campaign would be far less positive. The club finished eight places lower in Ligue 1, scoring nineteen fewer goals. This was largely due to the sale of Malcom to Barcelona, who had contributed twelve goals the previous year.
The defence however marginally improved, conceding six fewer goals in in 2017-18. Koundé would feature in fifty one games across the campaign, level only with goalkeeper Benoit Costil as the squad’s most used player. This was huge responsibility to place in a twenty year old centre back in only his second season. Yet already Koundé was showing that he had the talent and mind of an elite defender.
His 129 passes to the final third were a squad high, and only one other completed more passes in total. Bordeaux ranked third across the league for touches in their defensive third, that fell to sixteenth for the attacking third. Koundé’s control and proficiency in possession deep in his own half allowed the side a modicum of control. Even if there was not the support further forward to make use of his vertical passing, Koundé showed an eye for such an attribute.
Tackling 55.3% dribblers he faced put him ninth in the league. 34.8% successful pressures worthy of seventh via this metric, and tenth highest for interceptions. A tackle success rate of under 50% showed the need for development, but this is expected of a twenty year old centre back, standing at under six foot tall.
Such a campaign was enough to warrant a move. That Spanish giants Sevilla would part with £25 million was a remarkable statement of intent. Many clubs have held fire on the likes of Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté until now. Koundé was deemed an opportunity too rarefied to miss.
The Europa League triumph alone made Koundé’s first taste of life outside of France a special one. The season preceding that night in Germany however had, in itself, been a success.
A fourth placed finish, ten points clear of Villarreal, reinstated Sevilla in the Champions League. The outcome of the final booked their place in the flagship competition regardless, but their consistency and improvement over the course of the La Liga campaign had already bought their ticket.
Manager Julen Lopetegui had rebuilt his reputation. The Spaniard had accepted the Real Madrid job in 2018, just weeks before he was due to lead Spain to the World Cup that same year. This saw him duly dismissed, and his record stained.
Not that the Real Madrid job was any more gratifying; fired after a 5-1 defeat to Barcelona, just two months into the job. His rebuild at Sevilla, finishing fourth and winning the Europa League, sutured many wounds for him personally.
As Lopetegui righted many wrongs, Koundé was again building on his reputation. His pass accuracy roared up to 88.4% from the previous year, no doubt helped by a functional passing unit around him. His long passing also showed huge development, completing 74.1% of his 451 attempts, compared to 58.4% of his 462 long passes in 2018-19. The quality of his new side, and the covering work of the midfield ahead of him meant Koundé’s defensive output fell. If playing in a team of this ilk is to be the norm for him, then it will be acting in the key moments that counts, and not making tackles in huge volume.
The Pick of the Bunch?
As with many positions on the pitch, France face an abundance of talent at centre back. At least three of the options could become European leaders in the role for the next decade.
Koundé and Upamecano represent the obvious candidates. Wesley Fofana and Ibrahima Konaté are two even younger options. The more experienced Presnel Kimpembe, Lucas Hernandez, Clement Lenglet and Raphael Varane takes this figure up to nine variations.
The four youngest candidates bare many a similarity. All complete close to 90% of their total passes and over 63% of long balls (Upamecano’s completion is a ludicrous 78%).
Koundé boasts the best dribbler tackle success rate of 53.1%, and the highest pressure success at 39.8%. Another remarkable comparison is in the % of minutes played across their respective careers. For players so young, it might be expected to have low percentages, reflecting of a bedding in period. Upamecano has a 47% count, Konaté 38.8% and Fofana 34.2%. Koundé on the other hand has played in 72.4% of team minutes played since his debut. An astonishing amount of football played for one so young.
Koundé’s aerial success of 64% is lower than his rivals, being close to ten centimetres shorter than the next tallest. Partnered with one of the aforementioned, taller names would more than cover for this.
It will have been rare for a squad to have so many choices at centre back, offering so many different qualities. The talent of each will no doubt see them afforded their rightful chances at some point across the next ten to twelve years.
Whenever the time comes for Jules Koundé to make his move away from Andalusia, the usual suspects will no doubt peak their interest. Infuriated at missing out on Upamecano, Koundé will be the subject of the next centre back fox chase.
Whether one represents better value, or talent picking, than the other is unanswerable. The fee that will be commanded of Koundé could likely see expectations spill into overdrive. But if there is one thing watching Koundé teaches, it is that poise and timely action are the preserve of the best players. He might not get you off your seat with a walloping tackle, but instead be simply positioned correctly to deter a striker’s run.
Such things will seldom be seen to the eye that does not look for it. With a future as bright and long as Koundé’s, there are plenty of eyes still to be cast upon it.