The top teen centre-backs in Europe
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Every transfer window must have multiple sagas. It says something about how quiet summer 2019 has been that William Saliba, Saint-Etienne’s 18-year-old centre-back, was one of the main stories (at least in England) for a good couple of weeks. It helped that local rivals, in Arsenal and Tottenham, were both in for him, but it was still a little peculiar.
Still, Saliba is one of only six teenage central defenders to have played meaningful minutes in the five major European leagues during 2018/19. Let’s have a look at the others.
- Benoit Badiashile (Monaco)
- Ozan Kabak (Stuttgart)
- Boubacar Kamara (Marseille)
- Evan N’dicka (Frankfurt)
- Jean-Clair Todibo (Barcelona)
This being a newsletter, I’ll only be able to catch glimpses and snippets, but it should be fun.
It’s fun and exciting to watch all of these youngsters. It’s clear that the standard of youth coaching, particularly in France, is pretty high, and Badiashile is a good example. He’s clearly received some good tutelage about body positioning.
The above was the best example to show, moving quickly so that he can switch his body around and get ready to back off, but there were other moments I could have highlighted.
He looked a little uncertain in terms of decision-making at times, but that could have been a team structural thing — creating situations where a defender would always be uncertain — rather than a personal thing.
Elsewhere, I didn’t see enough of his passing to know how representative, but it was a beaut, and showed some awareness of where his teammates were, some clever touch to get it out of his feet enough, and some nice technique to pinch under himself slightly and to arc it over the opposition midfield to his target.
France put some centre-back formula in the water 20-30 years ago.
I wrote about Kabak back in January for the day job at Football Whispers, so that’s a good thing to read.
A quick aside on Stuttgart, where he moved in January, they could field a back three of Kabak, Benjamin Pavard, and Marc-Oliver Kempf (another young CB with a good reputation). Prime poaching territory given they got relegated.
From watching some limited gametime, Kabak’s first touch could do with work. It’s a little variable and could make him vulnerable to being a target of a pressing trap if the opponents wanted to look for one. His passing itself seemed fine though.
Elements of the eagerness to challenge that I highlighted in the Football Whispers article (that was written while he was still at Galatasaray) continued at Stuttgart. This isn’t a representative example, but it *is* a funny one.
Like the best jokes, though, it has some kernel of truth to it. I’d love to see a fancy overlay showing Kabak’s speed during that sequence, because I’m sure he can’t have been going much slower than his peak speed when he bundles into the opponent.
Those situations are tough, to be sure. A structural issue leads to a defender needing to close a huge gap in a short time, and they need to choose when to slow down and how much space they’re prepared to give. Kabak doesn’t seem to like giving space. And he ends up hacking legs.
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Unfortunately, the first game of Kamara’s I came across was in a 3-1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, in which Marseille’s team defence was so poor it’s hard to gauge Kamara’s part of it.
Against Strasbourg, the one thing that I’d been able to get out of the PSG game held up, which was some decent footwork and body positioning. He moved around the pitch very fluidly against PSG, and the fact that both Kamara and Boubacar are young French defenders makes you think that the French may have cracked coaching this part of the game.
There wasn’t a lot to go on in terms of positioning, and only enough defensive choices to make that I think that his decision-making is decent.
I have questions about his on-ball ability, but this is something else that I’d need to watch more to be certain of. There were a few times where his connection with the ball seemed a little off, and against Strasbourg there was almost always a teammate dropping to receive a five-yard pass. That tends to be a bit of a sign that the player in question needs support.
Unfortunately, given that N’dicka is down as a centre-back, the matches I saw of him he was playing either as an out-ant-out left-back or as a LCB in a back three which, essentially, was a left-back role.
In the spirit of ‘don’t say anything if you don’t have something nice to say’ I’ll keep this brief. It’s not that N’dicka is bad - he seems broadly competent, which is very good for his age - but compared to the others on this list he seems distinctly unexciting. His footwork and awareness seemed average at best, and he was clearly struggling with tasks given to him out wide, like what to do in attack as well as defending one-on-one.
He should have a fine career. But, doesn’t look like he’d push the other Frenchman in this list for a starting spot in the national team.
Given that he’s already got his big move to Barcelona, Todibo is kind of the least interesting of the bunch. He’s at one of the best teams in the world already, and it wouldn’t even necessarily be a big negative sign if he doesn’t work out there, given how young he is.
In a game I watched when he was at Toulouse earlier this season, it was fun to see him pull off little feints to escape the pressure of an opponent. Both because pressing strikers being feinted is always fun; partly because I knew that a Barcelona scout was probably watching this and going “yeah, this is a guy for us”.
It doesn’t always work, and he’s one of the genuine cases where a player could learn that sometimes getting rid is the best option, but his big frame generally helps him to hold off opponents and keep the ball.
Defensively, his body positioning is pretty nice and his footwork is good. I have very small questions over his positioning on the pitch, but I’d have to watch more to have a firm opinion on that.
And, to repeat a point made at least once earlier, he’ll be with Samuel Umtiti, a fellow Frenchman, at Barcelona. France have more high-quality centre-backs than most nations have high-quality players of any position.
After all of that, I’m most excited about Todibo, if he wasn’t already at Barcelona, and Badiashile. Kabak is fun as a bit of a loose cannon, and I think he has some genuine talent there, which is good as the only non-Frenchman.
They’re all French. All of them. Everywhere. Will there be a time when every footballer is French? Maybe. Nous sommes tous francais maintenant.
More seriously though, it’s fun to see so many good teenage centre-backs around. They’re not - perhaps N’dicka aside - players who’ve been thrown in because their team wants to blood youngsters and has no-one ahead of them in the depth chart. They’re in these starting lineups because they deserve to be.
That, in some ways, is half the battle. Playing regularly as a teenager gives you the exposure to the top level of the game, the lessons to learn and an early push up the learning curve. And it’s going to be great to watch them work at it in the years to come.
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