Inspired by Rio Ferdinand and potentially wanted as a long-term successor to Virgil van Dijk. For a young centre half making his way in English football, they aren’t bad names to be linked with.
It’s only a little more than three months since Armel Bella-Kotchap moved to Southampton for £10million from Bundesliga side VfL Bochum, but he’s faced up and risen above every challenge in his path so far.
The defender was fast-tracked into Germany’s senior squad this month after just six appearances in the Premier League, and he could make his full international debut against England tonight, aged just 20.
So who is the wonderkid already reminiscent of his ‘hero’ Rio Ferdinand, on whom he models his game, was identified by former Manchester United manager Ralf Rangnick as a top emerging talent, and is already being eyed up by Liverpool?
Below, Sportsmail profiles Bella-Kotchap, the man who could be lining up against the likes of Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling at Wembley.
Armel Bella-Kotchap could make his Germany debut against England at Wembley tonight
The Southampton defender has impressed since a £10m Premier League move this summer
Born in Paris to Cameroon international Cyrille Florent Bella, Armel bounced around the youth teams of five German sides before eventually settling at Bochum aged 16.
He broke through at the second-tier outfit aged 16, signing his first professional contract in April 2019 and making his senior debut one month later against Erzgebirge Aue.
The following campaign yielded just 14 appearances in all competitions, but obviously proved a valuable learning experience as the teenager then became a regular starter in 2020-21, helping the Blues gain promotion under Thomas Reis.
In his first season in the Bundesliga, Bella-Kotchap once again took the step up in his stride, making 22 league appearances and helping his side stay up with ease, finishing nine points above the relegation zone.
Centre half Bella-Kotchap began his career with German side VfL Bochum as a teenager
Although there were mistakes along the way, he helped Bochum gain promotion in 2020-21
Identified by Ralf Rangnick
Realising his talent early, Chelsea reportedly tried to sign him in 2020 – and they weren’t the only big English club on his tail.
According to The Sun, then-Manchester United interim manager Ralf Rangnick identified Bella-Kotchap as one of several top talents in Germany, along with Florian Wirtz, Luca Netz and Eric Martel.
German boss Rangnick, now head of the Austria national team, is renowned for spotting promising youngsters.
As it turns out, United waited until new manager Erik ten Hag was installed this summer before backing him in the transfer market, sanctioning a £55m outlay on Ajax centre half Lisandro Martinez and backing out-of-form captain Harry Maguire.
The Red Devils may well be regretting the decision not to stump up the cash for Bella-Kotchap now.
Former Manchester United interim boss Ralf Rangnick identified him as a top emerging talent
Impressing at Saints
The Saints, who bet their Premier League survival on raw, unproven players like Romeo Lavia, Gavin Bazunu, Samuel Edozie and Juan Larios from Manchester City and Sekou Mara from Bordeaux, were not going to make that mistake.
They snapped Bella-Kotchap up for around £10m and, aside from a 4-1 defeat in the season opener against Tottenham, which involved an ill-fated back five including Yan Valery, their new signing has been ever-present alongside Mohammed Salisu.
After his arrival, manager Ralph Hasenhuttl said: ‘He is a player who fits our profile very well and has a huge amount of potential. But, with the number of senior games he has already played, he can help us immediately.
‘I think he has made the perfect choice in wanting to join us and we will now work with him to make sure he reaches his potential both for himself and for the team.’
But even the club would have been surprised at how quickly he has settled. The imposing 6ft 3ins cuts a strapping figure and has the physicality – pace, explosive power, and strength – to succeed in the rough-and-tumble Premier League.
Not only that, for a 20-year-old his mental attributes look good too, with a composed demeanour and fine understanding of match situations proven in a brilliant 2-1 win against Chelsea.
Superb highlight-reel moments – a last-ditch flick to dispossess Raheem Sterling, a brilliantly timed challenge to deny Anthony Elanga against United, an eye-catching burst forward against Leeds – only serve to persuade fans of his precocious talent.
Emulating Rio and linked to Liverpool
Upon arriving at St Mary’s, Bella-Kotchap said: ‘I read Rio’s book, I think it was (an autobiography), it’s quite interesting. Yes (he is one of my idols), because I know him personally and he’s a very, very good guy with a big career.
‘(We met) through friends in Germany, he came to watch one of my games, after that he asked to speak to me. He was very happy about my move to England as well. He’s a hero for me and I try to copy him a bit.’
There are worse players you can study.
Although genuine comparisons are premature, there are traits one can see in both their games. The lithe figures, the decisiveness of their actions, the economy and elegance of their movement.
Bella-Kotchap admits his ‘hero’ is United legend Rio Ferdinand, whose game he tries to ‘copy’
Liverpool are reportedly interested in him as a long-term successor to Virgil van Dijk (centre)
It might be no surprise, then, that Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are reportedly keeping an eye on his situation.
Spanish outlet Fichajes claims Real and Bayern see him as long-term partners for Eder Militao and Matthijs de Ligt, with Liverpool eyeing up a future replacement for Van Dijk, who at 31 has endured some surprisingly poor form this season.
With fellow Reds centre-halves Joel Matip both 31 and injury-prone, and Joe Gomez and Nat Phillips seemingly out of favour, an all Parisian-born centre half duo of Ibrahima Konate and Bella-Kotchap would strike fear into the hearts of opposition attackers.
Called up by Germany
His reward for his fine form? Well, only six games into his Southampton career, Germany manager Hansi Flick has called up him up to the senior side.
Experience through the country’s youth levels, with nine caps for the Under-21 side, means Flick evidently feels Bella-Kotchap is ready for the step up.
Germany manager Hansi Flick has fast-tracked him into the senior squad – whether Bella-Kotchap (above) plays or not in the Nations League on Monday, his stock is only going one way
Preferred to experienced operators like Mats Hummels, Jonathan Tah and Robin Koch left out of the squad, he is still competing with the likes of Real star Antonio Rudiger, Niklas Sule, Nico Schlotterbeck and Thilo Kehrer for a spot. Which is tough.
He was an unused substitute in Germany’s 1-0 Nations League loss against Hungary on Friday.
But in a final group match against England on Monday that is a dead-rubber for both sides – albeit being the final competitive game for both teams before the World Cup – Flick may be tempted to blood Bella-Kotchap against an ailing Three Lions attack.
If he does, you wouldn’t put it past him to continue England’s goalscoring woes. Yet whether he plays or not, his stock is only going one way.