“It’s the perfect step for me.” Ethan Ampadu was unequivocal. And why shouldn’t he be? The Chelsea teenager had a host of European clubs large and small chasing him and could pick whichever suited him best at leisure. Naturally, he chose RB Leipzig.
The east German club has proved a common destination for Europe’s brightest young things since its rapid ascension to the top flight in 2016. Three days after Ampadu joined Leipzig on a season-long loan, England under-21 international Ademola Lookman followed from Everton on a permanent deal. Spain international Dani Olmo could have moved anywhere in January but decided on an 11-year-old club in Saxony. Christopher Nkunku, Naby Keita, Dayot Upamecano and Timo Werner could tell a similar story.
It’s easy to see the appeal. Leipzig are managed by a coach almost as young and exciting as so many of their players, Julian Nagelsmann. They are a club on the rise, with significant financial backing but even more impressive scouting. They form part of an international project that entails superb facilities and extraordinary clarity of thinking. Young players tend to thrive in Leipzig.
But Ethan Ampadu hasn’t. Minutes on the pitch have been painfully scarce. He has started more games for Wales than Leipzig since the start of his move. Promising talents Upamecano, Nordi Mukiele, Ibrahima Konate and Lukas Klostermann, captain Willi Orban and the experienced Marcel Halstenberg have simply proved too difficult to shift from the starting XI. Leipzig’s CEO, Oliver Mintzlaff, was forced to publicly reject the possibility of terminating the teenager’s loan prematurely as early as November.
The prospect of a genuine title race and European push – Leipzig are currently one point off the top of the Bundesliga and topped their Champions League group – may have discouraged Nagelsmann from fully rotating his squad. Ampadu is not alone in having struggled for chances. Lookman, who was signed for £22m, has started just one league game all season and was reported to be considering a move to Newcastle in January.
Fate might be about to intervene for Ampadu, however. Konate and Orban are injured for Leipzig’s Champions League tie against Spurs. Upamecano is suspended. That leaves options very thin on the ground and it is Ampadu, who made his first Bundesliga appearance in over three months last weekend, who is best set to capitalise.
It is a strange coincidence that Ampadu, a Chelsea loanee, will likely get his sudden and unexpected big break in a massive game against his parent club’s rivals Spurs.
It will represent a tremendous amount of pressure for a player who has barely played club football, period. A cluster of games for Exeter City in League Two in 2016/17 is all the Welshman can hang his hat on at club level. That’s pretty inadequate preparation for facing Dele Alli and Lucas Moura in full flight in front of 62,000 fans at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Wednesday night.
But those who know Ampadu best are not worried. Chief among them is Ryan Giggs, Ampadu’s manager with Wales, who has repeatedly trusted the 19-year-old in key qualifiers . “He is an amazing talent”, “he’s a future leader” and “he makes it look so easy” are ringing endorsements from a character not always prone to gushing emotional praise.
Ampadu is used to taking unlikely opportunities in his stride. His Wales debut came in the Stade de France and saw him face Kylian Mbappe. He played for Exeter’s under-18 side aged 14 and the senior side aged 15. His senior debut, in the Carabao Cup, lasted 120 minutes and saw the League Two side remarkably overcome Championship outfit Brentford. Exeter kept a clean sheet. Ampadu was at the heart of the defence and awarded man of the match, breaking an 87-year-old record as the club’s youngest ever player in the process. “The biggest compliment I can give him is that he plays like a 35-year-old,” said Exeter manager Paul Tisdale after the game. “We don’t often encourage and cultivate subtle, classy players [in England], and he’s one of those.”
Ampadu is versatile, able to play in midfield as well as at the back. In his 30-minute appearance last weekend, the Welshman completed 96.8 per cent of his passes – the second highest proportion of any player in the game. He won all of his aerial and ground duels. Those are encouraging signs for a player being asked to seamlessly adapt to high-intensity football after months on the sidelines.
Football is in Ampadu’s blood. Making his senior debut before taking his GCSEs was probably helped by an upbringing in which the sport was everything. Ethan’s father Kwame made over 450 appearances in a career that saw him take in West Brom, Swansea, Leyton Orient, Exeter and, briefly, Arsenal. Ampadu Snr returned to the Emirates to be part of the youth coaching set-up in 2012, working his way up to the position of under-18 head coach and later joining Thierry Henry’s coaching staff at AS Monaco.
Ampadu’s maturity beyond his years was evident for Tisdale, who felt compelled to inform people at England, who Ampadu was also eligible for. “I phoned England when he was 14,” Tisdale said. “I said ‘I’ve just seen this chap play, he just played for Exeter under-18s, he’s four years younger, he’s played on a dreadful pitch with awful conditions and he’s played centre forward, sweeper, centre midfield all in the space of one game. He looks like Ruud Gullit and you need to get this chap for England.’”
Though Ampadu’s loan to Leipzig has been plagued by frustration, reportedly Nagelsmann has been playing the long game. Even though the circumstances leading to Ampadu’s thrust into the spotlight are clearly circumstantial, Bild journalist Stefan Krause has been arguing against pessimism on Ampadu’s prospects for months.
“They trust in Ethan and want to give him a chance until summer,” he said in October. “Nagelsmann told us that he is very satisfied with his performance in training sessions and Ethan has a good connection to his teammates.”
Similarly, Leipzig CEO Mintzlaff gave an official club rebuttal a month later. “An early return is not an option,” he confirmed. “Nagelsmann will continue to develop Ethan in training, so that he will certainly still get his time on the pitch during this long season.”
It appears we may only have to wait until Wednesday to see if Mintzlaff’s prediction will finally come true. Everything in Ampadu’s fledgling career suggests he will meet the challenge if it does.