The Champions League

FEATURE | Armel-Bella Kotchap – Southampton are signing one of the Bundesliga’s best young central-defenders

Armel Bella-Kotchap’s rise up the footballing ranks has been rapid so far. Now, the Bochum defender is headed for Southampton, signing for a reported €11m.

Though born in Paris, the centre-back has largely lived in Germany, and signed for Bochum at 15-years-of-age. Not only did he quickly impress youth coaches at the club, but he also attracted national attention, winning an U18 cap for Germany a month before his 17th birthday. In March 2019, he signed his first professional contract with Die Unabsteigbaren, making his first team bow a month later in a 3-2 defeat at Erzgebirge Aue. From there, minutes in the senior side came more often for him.

The game that arguably showed his huge potential however came a few months later, in a second round DFB Pokal tie against Bayern Munich. Though Bochum lost 2-1, they led for the majority of the match and defended superbly against the German champions. At just 18-years-old, Bella-Kotchap kept Serge Gnabry quiet throughout the first half, and even managed to neutralise Robert Lewandowski, who was introduced at half-time. While he was sent-off at the end for a handball, his determined performance won over many watching. This was evident at the Ruhrstadion, with the fans even giving him a standing ovation after he was dismissed from the pitch.

With the club committed to giving its youngsters time and room to develop in a first-team environment, head coach Thomas Reis continued to give the defender minutes. A year later, his place in the starting eleven was undisputed, making 26 starts to help Bochum win the 2. Bundesliga.

Now playing in the German top-flight for the first time, Bella-Kotchap started six of the first seven league games. With Bochum initially struggling to adjust to the Bundesliga however, Reis opted to make changes to his backline. As a result, the youngster played just two Bundesliga minutes from mid-October to December, coinciding with the team beginning to string together wins. Reis even spoke of the centre-back being particularly poor in training, contributing to his benching.

After the winter break, his chance came as Erhan Mašović was suspended for their first league game in 2022 against Wolfsburg. Restored to the starting line-up, a strong showing in a 1-0 win gave Reis the confidence to continue with him partnering Maxim Leitsch. Playing his part as a regular once again, Bochum lost just twice in the next two months. The run of games included a memorable 4-2 home win over Bayern, with Bella-Kotchap again doing well to limit the German champions’ attacking threat. His solid performances meant he only missed three games for the rest of the season, as Die Unabsteigbaren did enough to preserve their top-flight status for another campaign.

Though it was very much a learning year for the right-footed 20-year-old, there’s no doubt that he has all the characteristics needed to be a future star centre-back. Reis uses a man-to-man marking system, asking his defenders to aggressively step out from the defensive line at times to apply defensive pressures. As a result, football statistics website FBRef records Bella-Kotchap to have 12.93 pressures per 90 minutes this season, ranking him in the top 10% of centre-backs in Europe’s top 5 leagues. He’s also good at reading the play and making timely interceptions, as this graphic shows here.

According to FBRef.com, the German U21 international was fourth in the league for the highest percentage of aerial battles won. He uses his 6’3” height impressively, while also being quick enough to make recovery challenges when needed.

As with many youth prospects, there are still plenty of aspects he can improve on. Clearly, his focus and performances in training can sometimes be lacking, as Reis alluded to in the first half of last season. His defensive awareness in spotting and tracking runners isn’t always strong either, maybe due to Reis using a man-marking style. While he’s a capable passer, he’s not often asked to build up play for Bochum and it is a skill he would need to improve significantly to do so for Ralph Hasenhüttl.

Still, there’s a lot to like about the 20-year-old, and it is understandable that Southampton were won over by his huge potential. The loss of Bella-Kotchap will certainly hurt Bochum, as he was their brightest youth prospect. But the transfer fee, reported to be around €11m, will let them strengthen their squad elsewhere, particularly in attack. Southampton fans should be excited about this young defender who with time and patience, can become a fantastic centre-back able to cope superbly at the top level.

Josh Sim

 



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