With the Hammers in the hunt for a new stopper, Sam Crocker evaluates Marseille's Upton Park-linked Nicolas N'Koulou...
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- Date of birth: March 27, 1990
- Place of birth: Yaoundé, Cameroon
- Height: 5ft 11in
- Position: Centre-back
- Current club: Marseille (159 apps, 5 goals)
- Previous clubs: Monaco
- International: Cameroon (51 caps, 0 goals)
A graduate of the Kadji Sports Academy in Cameroon, Nicolas N'Koulou joins an impressive set of alumni to have left the central African country for greater things. Samuel Eto'o, Stephane Mbia and, er, Eric Djemba-Djemba all started off at the institution in Douala, Cameroon, with no fewer than five of the current Cameroon Africa Cup of Nations squad made up of players who kicked off their careers there.
Moving to Monaco at the age of 17, a brief stint with the the principality's CFA squad saw him progress to the first team, where he spent three years going about his business and building his reputation as one of the league's most imposing defenders. At Monaco before the recent injection of cash, pre-Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez, N'Koulou was one of the shining lights in what was a dour 2010/11 season as they were relegated from the top flight to Ligue 2.
And thus, a transfer scrap ensued. With teams across Europe looking on, N'Koulou shunned the advances of Arsenal, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid to remain in France, joining Ligue 1 giants Marseille, where he remains to this day.
A regular fixture in the Cameroon national team since he was 18, N'Koulou has already acquired over 50 caps aged 24, and would have boasted more had the Indomitable Lions not underachieved so comprehensively over the last few years. While he's already taken in two World Cups, this year's Africa Cup of Nations will only be his second after Cameroon failed to qualify for the 2012 and 2013 editions.
Why you need to know him
While interest from Arsenal has cooled in the three years since he left Monaco, N'Koulou has been most recently linked with West Ham as the Hammers eye a long-term replacement for the potentially-outgoing Winston Reid, whose contract expires in the summer. N'Koulou is arguably a better player than Reid, but any possible arrival at Upton Park would likely tie in with the New Zealander's exit – the possibility exists that he could leave before the end of the month.
More generally, N'Koulou is an increasingly rare type of player whose consistent, no-drama approach to the game is admirable, which provides remarkable consistency for both club and country. He is a man of genuine talent and defensive quality, and in a world where David Luiz is included in the FIFA World XI, a dying breed.
With a natural composure on the ball, panic is not a word you'll often see in the same sentence as N'Koulou's name. It's something he has avoided since arriving in Europe; incredibly assured with the ball at his feet, he is a calming presence at the heart of the defence.
His all-round game is excellent, however. The Cameroon stopper is competent in the air, in the tackle and where he positions himself on the pitch, and it's difficult to pick fault with anything in particular in his defensive repertoire. He can also be relied upon as someone who is almost always available for selection – he played every league game during the 2012/13 season and missed only one match last time out, making his lack of injury and suspension record a massive plus for any manager.
His use of the ball could be improved. N'Koulou rarely struggles to compose himself, but he could perhaps be better in terms of passing and distribution from the back.
It'd be harsh to knock a defender for his lack of goals, but the 24-year-old is hardly a net-busting beast from set-pieces – just five goals in 159 appearances for l'OM. It doesn't help that he's 'only' 5ft 11in.
Back in December 2013, Marseille president Vincent Labrune said N'Koulou wouldn't be sold for any price: "Neither 10 nor 15 nor 20 million. My position has not changed. I was very clear with the clubs that have approached us." Just over a year on Labrune's resistance may have wavered, though N'Koulou's contract still has another year left to run after this season.
Did you know?
N'Koulou's all-time inspiration is Laurent Blanc. In a French interview he revealed that he used to have a poster of the ex-Manchester United centre-back above his bed. "He remains my idol; it was he who gave me the desire to be a champion today," beamed the defender.
No bad player to worship, you would agree, but perhaps it was a tad awkward when Marseille came up against PSG, who Blanc currently manages.
What happens next?
As mentioned, in the event that Reid does leave before the January window shuts, there is potential for premature Hammers activity. However, with Reid seemingly content to stay put until the end of the season, it would seem more likely that N'Koulou too will stick around in France until then. And with Marseille very much in contention for the Ligue 1 title, whether he would even want to leave now is doubtful.
It seems more credible that the summer is when things will happen for the Cameroon star, which presents wider possibilities. While Marseille manager Marcelo Bielsa would prefer to keep hold of his star centre-back, the chances are that Marseille will cash in on him for a reasonably high fee – after all, good defenders are in short supply these days.