In the East German district of Saxony, a mini-revolution is taking shape nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Leipzig now have a football team at the peak of the domestic game.
Whether you agree or disagree with the ethics of their rapid rise to prominence, the Red Bull-infused train that is RB Leipzig shows no signs of grinding to a halt. After finishing second only to Bayern Munich last season, they embarked on a historic maiden Champions League campaign.
Despite flexing their fiscal muscle over the last few years, bringing in Davie Selke for a 2. Bundesliga record of €8 million in 2015, it’s largely been the astute business done in defence that has allowed RB to flourish. Leipzig’s success to date has been built on experienced centre backs Marvin Compper, Willie Orban, and stalwart Tim Sebastien, who spent six years with the East German side between 2010 and 2016.
The arrivals of two French teenagers, Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté, are the latest examples of the club’s shrewd work in defense. With an eye on the future, sporting director Ralf Rangnick along with manager Ralph Hasenhüttl recruited the two young centre halves that have already had a big impact.
Our focus is drawn to the emergence of Konaté, who has already take so much playing time from Orban and Compper that the latter has signed with Glasgow Celtic during the current winter break.
The 18-year-old caused a stir when he chose to leave Sochaux on a free last summer after coming through the ranks of the Ligue 2 side. The Paris-born player made his debut for the French side in January 2017, becoming a regular during the end-of-season run-in, making 12 appearances for FCSM. His decision to leave left the club frustrated.
“Sochaux have been informed that Konaté will not sign his first professional contract with the club that educated him and gave him the chance at senior level,” a statement on the club’s website reads. “Losing such a promising talent is a major blow for the club. We have taken his decision with disappointment and a certain bitterness. Negotiations over a professional contract started in the autumn of 2015 with his family and then resumed with his agent toward the end of 2016. Sochaux often succeed in tying down promising youngsters, but like many other formative clubs, we also suffer from teams that chase the signature of very young players.”
This last statement was echoed by Andy Scott, the French football expert working for Ligue1.com when he revealed the club had high hopes for the teen after building a long-held reputation for bringing through good young players.
However, after being sold off to Chinese investors Ledus in 2015 by long-standing owners Peugeot, this should have been the catalyst for the club to go forward. Instead they have failed to secure promotion back to the top flight since their 2014 relegation which has stalled the progress of their talent pool.
Konaté didn’t just walk into the first team upon his summer arrival. He instead had to watch the first handful of games with Upamecano filling the spot next to Orban. Nonetheless, since making his debut in October against 1. FC Köln, he has shown why he’s been so highly-rated, playing 90 minutes in 5 of his 8 games for die Bullen.
Deutsche Welle’s Felix Tamsut explained, “Konaté is the typical Leipzig signing, given his age and physical abilities. Despite the fact that Leipzig’s form hasn’t been the same as last season, he gave a good account of himself (65 percent successful tackles, RBL’s highest and on par with Jerome Boateng). He’s expected to lead RBL’s defence for years to come, together with his compatriot (Dayot) Upamecano.”
“I believe he’ll be given even more credit in the Rückrunde, especially given Leipzig’s lack of natural defenders, and that would help him develop and become a better central defender despite his very young age. He needs a bit of time and experience, but he’s certainly one of those raw talents that Leipzig became so famous for giving a chance, and in his case, I truly believe it’ll pay off. RBL is the right place for him that in that regard.”
The team lie in fifth place level with three other clubs on 28 points, presenting a titanic tussle for Champions League placement; seven of the top eight clubs are separated by just four points. When Hasenhüttl’s men resume the campaign, they face second-place FC Schalke 04, who have had a remarkable change in fortune this season thanks to the goals of Guido Burgstaller and the return to form of Max Meyer.
It will be no real surprise to see Konaté’s name firmly ensconced at the heart of the back four. This summer’s World Cup may be one tournament too soon, but Dider Deschamps’ recent call-up of Benjamin Pavard proved he is not afraid to give relatively unproven players their chance. If Konaté keeps impressing, an international cap may not be far away.