Armel Bella-Kotchap – Bochum Product, Southampton Standout, Premier League Star? by Shay Hicks
Name – Armel Bella-Kotchap
Nationality – German/Cameroonian
D.O.B – 11.12.2001 (21 years old)
Height – 190cm (6’2.5″)
Strong Foot – Right
Current Club – Southampton
Position – CB
Value – €20.00m (via Transfermarkt)
In the summer of 2022 Southampton were widely heralded for their business in the transfer window. Whilst their season would ultimately end in relegation, this wasn’t a reflection of their incoming players, with the likes of Roméo Lavia and Kamaldeen Sulemana both impressing fans throughout the year. Personally my favourite signing was that of Armel Bella-Kotchap, a German international who has shown flashes of his potential as a star defender at the top level. In this report I will discuss Armel’s path to the Premier League and what will make him such an interesting player to watch out for in the 2023/24 season.
Armel was born in Paris, France to Cameroonian parents. He is the son of Cyrille Florent Bella, a former Cameroonian international who played his domestic football in Cameroon, Paraguay, Germany and Hong Kong. Cyrille would sign for Rot-Weiß Ahlen (then known as LR Ahlen) on a free transfer in the summer of 2000, the same club that Armel would start his footballing career with as a child. Cyrille left Ahlen for Rot-Weiß Oberhausen in 2005, but Armel would stay put, playing for the German team’s youth side until 2009. He would then move on to SC Grimlinghausen, staying for three years until he was picked up by top-flight side Borussia Mönchengladbach in 2012. Towards the end of his time with Gladbach, Armel’s youth career would take many turns, moving through the academies of Unterrath and Duisburg over the span of two years. After bouncing around numerous youth clubs in the Ruhr Armel would eventually find a more permanent home in the region, joining VfL Bochum as a 15 year old in 2017.
He took many steps to get to Bochum, but once he settled with the club Bella-Kotchap began his rise through the youth ranks. His Bochum u-17 debut would come in the first match of the B-Junioren Bundesliga West season, immediately being handed the captain’s armband in a 2-1 loss to Schalke 04. Bochum would start the season early, going winless in their first four matches before beating Armel’s former club Duisburg 1-0. Sadly for him that would be his last match as captain of the squad for months, being dropped for one match before returning to the starting XI against 1.FC Köln the next week. Bochum’s season would improve after their poor start, with Bella-Kotchap helping them to achieve a 6th-placed finish at the end of the season. He would even score once during the campaign, netting the second goal in a 4-0 win over Viktoria Köln.
Armel would make improvements during the 2018/19 season, also making his Germany u-18 debut in the process. He began his season with the Bochum u-19 side in the A-Junioren Bundesliga West. His debut would come against his childhood team Rot-Weiß Oberhausen, playing the full match in a 3-0 victory. His season would start fairly well before an untimely straight red in a 3-0 win over Aachen in October. His international debut would actually come before he returned from suspension, appearing as a half-time sub in a 1-0 win over Cyprus in a friendly. Armel would make an instant impact on his return to domestic football, scoring the go-ahead goal in an eventual 3-1 win over Preußen Münster. At this point Bella-Kotchap had finally settled in with a club, and it was clear that all it took was a little faith in him for him to thrive. Towards the end of the season Bochum would show even more faith in Armel, giving him a call-up to the senior side for the last four matches of the 2. Bundesliga season. He stepped up and performed fairly well, playing every minute and even earning a clean sheet in a goalless draw against St. Pauli.
Bella-Kotchap would split his time between the Bochum u-19s and the senior squad during the 2019/20 season, appearing six times in the youth league and 12 times in the 2. Bundesliga, also being given his first professional deal in the process. He earned most of his starts during the first half of the season before regressing to a bench role. This season wouldn’t have many notable moments, but Armel still impressed and maintained consistency throughout his maiden season with the senior squad. He also performed well against Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal. He managed to keep star striker Robert Lewandowski quiet for the entire match before being unfortunately sent off for a handball in the 88th minute. Bayern would score one minute later to win the match 2-1.
Armel had made significant progress in each of his season since he joined Bochum, and this trend would continue in the 2020/21 season. Bella-Kotchap would make the step from occasional starter and bench player to full-time first-choice defender as Bochum achieved a first-place finish in the 2.Bundesliga. Armel would form a great partnership with fellow young CB Maxim Leitsch (now with FSV Mainz) to help Bochum win the title. During this season Bochum would have the second-best defensive record in the division, with only third-placed Holstein Kiel conceding less goals over the season. Alongside their league success Bochum would also send warning shots to the top flight in the DFB-Pokal, beating mid-table finishers FSV Mainz on penalties in the second round before losing 4-0 to RB Leipzig in the round of 16. During this season Armel would make his only appearance for the Germany u-20 side, appearing as a halftime sub in a 3-1 win over Switzerland.
As is the case with any newly-promoted teams, Bochum would look to make numerous additions to their squad for the 2021/22 season. They would sign multiple strikers, midfielders and a few depth players. One of the most notable things about their transfer windows was their lack of centre back signings, electing instead to put their faith in youth and back their strong defensive partnership from the previous campaign. Armel had shown a pattern of stepping up to new heights in each of his previous seasons, so naturally he welcomed the challenged and made his presence known in the Bundesliga.
In his first start of the season Bochum would manage to keep a clean sheet, beating FSV Mainz 2-0 at home. He would take another step up internationally early on in the season, making his Germany u-21 debut in a 6-0 win over San Marino in early September. Of course there were some growing pains (along with a mandatory 7-0 destruction from Bayern Munich), but Bochum and Bella-Kotchap would soon stabilise and begin to put together some solid performances. Bochum left the relegation zone entirely with a 1-0 win over Greuther Fürth (a game which Armel watched from the bench) and would stay away from the bottom of the table for the remainder of the season, eventually earning a very respectable thirteenth-placed finish. Considering that they relied entirely on free transfers (they actually made a profit in the transfer market with the sale of Robert Zulj to Ittihad Kalba for €350k), it was clear that a mid-table finish was an incredible achievement for Thomas Reis’ squad.
Armel had had quite the journey with Bochum, who gave him a permanent home in the Ruhr after numerous setbacks in his early career. After five long, largely successful years, it was time for him to take a big risk and make a move away from Germany. With reported interest from top Premier League clubs including Manchester City, Chelsea and Spurs, Armel would eventually join Southampton for a reported fee of €11.00m (via Transfermarkt). Southampton would choose to allow defenders Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens to join Premier League rivals Aston Villa and Bournemouth respectively on loan, clearly outlining their intention to insert Bella-Kotchap into a starting role alongside the left-footed Ghanaian international, Mohammed Salisu.
Following a 4-1 defeat to Spurs on the opening day, Armel would be given his Premier League debut the next week in a 2-2 draw with Leeds United. He would go on to make a further eight starts in a row, a run which ended with him picking up a shoulder injury in a match against West Ham. In the middle of this stretch of games he would make his senior debut for Germany, appearing as a last-minute substitution in a 3-3 draw with England in the Nations League. Unfortunately Armel would struggle to find consistency in his first year in England, largely thanks to a number of injuries and two mid-season managerial changes.
Despite enduring a tough debut season in England, Bella-Kotchap’s international career would continue to grow as he would be included in the Germany squad for the 2022 World Cup. Whilst he didn’t manage to make a single appearance as Germany crashed out of the competition in the group stages, it was still an impressive feat for the young defender.
Key Dates in Armel’s Career:
13.08.2017 – Makes his Bochum u-17s debut
24.02.2018 – Scores his first goal for Bochum u-17s
12.08.2018 – Makes his Bochum u-19s debut
15.11.2018 – Makes his Germany u-18s debut
23.11.2018 – Scores his first goal for Bochum u-19s
16.02.2019 – Called up to the Bochum senior squad for the first time
28.04.2019 – Makes his senior debut for Bochum
07.10.2020 – Makes his Germany u-20s debut
14.02.2021 – Scores his first goal in senior football
23.05.2021 – Wins the 2. Bundesliga title with Bochum
21.08.2021 – Makes his Bundesliga debut
02.09.2021 – Makes his Germany u-21s debut
20.06.2022 – Joins Southampton on a permanent basis for a €11.00m fee, signs a contract until 2026
13.08.2022 – Makes his debut for Southampton
26.09.2022 – Makes his senior debut for Germany
For this report I have selected moments from Southampton’s Premier League matches against Crystal Palace (15.04), Arsenal (21.04), Newcastle United (30.04) and Nottingham Forest (08.05).
Armel is a physically strong player who has a large frame, but more importantly he knows how to use his size to his advantage. In this moment the Nottingham Forest striker makes a run off his back shoulder and into the box. Armel keeps his body in between the striker and the ball for long enough for the goalkeeper to come out and claim the ball.
Armel has many of the most desirable traits of the modern centre back, and his ball distribution is extremely impressive. He initially plays a short pass whilst he looks for a passing option upfield. Once he has identified his target he asks for the ball again and quickly plays an inch-perfect cross-field pass to an attacker.
Whilst ball-playing ability is desirable in top-level defenders, a centre back still has to be able to defend his box. Armel reacts quickly as a Newcastle player runs into a crossing space on the edge of the box, moving into his 6yd box. Once a looping cross comes into the box he is quick to jump up and head the ball away safely.
Armel is clearly a very good centre back, but all defenders make mistakes from time to time. Thankfully for Armel he possesses the speed to recover quickly and fix his previous errors. In this moment Armel’s initial positioning is poor, giving the Arsenal attacker a considerable head start in a race to the box. He catches up quickly, eventually becoming side-to-side with the attacker as they approach the 6yd box. He first attempts to poke the ball away but is unsuccessful. With the Arsenal attacker running out of space he smartly uses his strength to push his body between the ball and the player, shielding the ball out for a goal kick.
This final moment is another example of Armel’s distribution from the back, but is also an example of how he deals with pressure. He is being pressed by Jordan Ayew, one of the better pressing forwards in the league. Jordan comes in from the side, so Armel pushes forward slightly before playing an accurate long ball between two defenders and into a Southampton attacker.
I felt well-suited to the Bundesliga, but the Premier League is even more physical and one of my real strengths is tackling. I am by no means the finished product, I am still young and I can still make improvements in all areas … I am a really eager to learn and I can take lots in here.Armel’s response when asked if he is more suited to the Bundesliga or the Premier League
As is the case with the other two relegated clubs from the most recent Premier League season, many clubs have been linked to Southampton players in discounted deals. For Bella-Kotchap, numerous top flight clubs in England and Germany have taken an interest in landing his signature. It is clear to see why, given that he is a smart defender with ball-playing ability as well as a solid physical skillset. It is rumoured that Southampton will be looking for €25.00m for the player, a fairly high figure but one that is still fairly good given the current CB market. Even for a top club, Armel could join the squad this summer and potentially become a day-one starter in their league campaign. I think he should make a move back into the Premier League, and his own comments in the past would suggest that he would prefer a second chance at the top of the English game. However there are no guarantees in football, and Bella-Kotchap would most likely thrive wherever he may go next.