In this era of social media and accessibility of information, it’s always quite a surprise when a leftback is mentioned by name and a venerated manager goes “Who?”, but Luke Garbutt aside, Everton yesterday announced the signing of a young leftback for the Under-23 side that had the majority of the fanbase going “Who?”
Director of Football Marcel Brands later added that the club had been following Niels Nkounkou for the last few months at Olympique Marseille’s youth squad. The lanky leftback will be joining as a free agent following the lapse of his contract, with word that the player had turned down a new contract to try out his prospects elsewhere.
The 19-year-old will be expected to join the Under-23 side which has been shorn of a number of stalwarts following the release of captain Morgan Feeney, Alex Denny, and Matty Foulds among others after their current deals expired.
RBM: Jeremy, this news came out of nowhere for Everton fans, what do you know about Niels?
JS: Not a huge amount as he hasn’t yet appeared for Marseille’s first team (he’s just made the bench a couple of times). But he’s a well-regarded young left back who can also play further up the left flank. He is a little like a Benjamin Mendy in that he is strong, has a great engine and can patrol the whole flank all match and has a decent shot and cross on him too.
He’s also a little raw though, and needs to work a lot on his positioning and particularly his concentration. A big ban after a red card for fighting with an opponent last year suggests that he may also need to work a little on his temperament. The fact that Juventus and RB Leipzig were also rumoured to be interested gives an idea of his potential.
RBM: What is the current situation at OM with regards to squad depth, management, ownership, and development opportunities, why would he leave?
JS: He was offered a first pro contract but Andre Villas Boas has been quite clear that he doesn’t think that he is quite ready to be given a proper first team chance yet. Marseille aren’t particularly renowned for giving youth a chance anyway, although with financial issues they have handed out a few first pro contracts this summer.
OM don’t have the money to bring many players in and left back hasn’t been their strongest position. And there is the promise of Champions League next season. So he may well have been told he won’t get much of a look-in this season. He has suggested that he is moving only for sporting reasons and the chance to experience first team football. There are some who suggest that it may be another case of an agent influencing him to follow the money.
RBM: Is it encouraging to see he has been part of the France international youth setup?
JS: Yes and no. He is part of a strong generation so it’s always impressive to get those call-ups and learn with quality teammates and coaches. But two U19 caps and one U18 cap - all in friendlies - are not a hugely impressive return.
RBM: Would it be beneficial for him to learn from Lucas Digne, beyond the more obvious ‘fellow Frenchman’ narrative?
JS: Definitely. In terms of great top flight and international experience you can’t get much better than Baines and Digne. And in Digne’s case, as well as the French, he has played for some of Europe’s top clubs and had his ups and downs, so he should be able to help Nkounkou in terms of life experience too. If Niels keeps level-headed and is willing to learn, he has a couple of great potential teachers to help him.
We’ll await to see Nkounkou in action to get a better idea of the player and how he suits the club’s game, but our thanks to Jeremy for his time, and here’s wishing his Seagulls the best of luck in the run-in to end the season.