When Lyon signed the seventeen year old prospect Saël Kumbedi from Le Havre for €1 million in the summer of 2022, he was very much seen as one for the future. At the time, he only had 219 minutes of first team action in Ligue 2 to his name. However, the young right-back made such rapid progress at Lyon that, when Chelsea made an offer for Malo Gusto in the January 2023 transfer window, Lyon had no qualms about accepting it and putting their faith in Kumbedi to step up in his place.
A fast, energetic and hard-working player, Kumbedi has the attributes to function either as a conventional right-back or as a wing-back. Diminutive in stature, he nevertheless has the lungs to work up and down the touchline and has an eye for a goal or an assist. There’s still a rawness to his play and he can be slightly naïve defensively at times, but that aspect of his game should improve as he matures and gains experience.
From Paris to Le Havre
Kumbedi hails from Stains in the northern suburbs of Paris, where he was born into a family of Congolese heritage. As a junior, he was briefly on the books of Paris Saint-Germain, amongst other local teams, before moving to Le Havre in 2019, aged fourteen. The Le Havre ‘centre de formation‘ has a reputation as one of the best and most productive youth academies in France and Kumbedi prospered under their tutelage during his first couple of years in Normandy.
By the Autumn of 2021, word of Saël Kumbedi’s burgeoning reputation had reached France Under-17 national team manager José Alcocer. Kumbedi was called into his squad for UEFA U17 Championship qualifiers against Moldova and Greece and even provided an assist for a goal against the Moldovans on his debut.
Under the wing of a Lyon legend
Former Lyon manager Paul Le Guen, who led ‘Les Gones‘ to a hat-trick of Ligue 1 titles between 2002 and 2005, was by now in charge of Le Havre. He decided to throw Kumbedi into a Coupe de France first round tie just a few days after his return from that international call-up. Still only sixteen years old, Saël Kumbedi played the full ninety minutes in a 2-0 win away at Vierzon.
It would be another four months before he made his second appearance for Le Havre and got his first taste of Ligue 2 action, a week before his seventeenth birthday in March 2022. In a hotly contested local derby against Caen, Le Guen brought Saël Kumbedi off the bench to replace Ismaël Boura in a tactical switch at half time. Playing against future Lyon team mate Johan Lepenant, Kumbedi picked up an unwanted distinction. He became the youngest ever player to be sent off in Ligue 2 when he received a red card in the 80th minute as Le Havre lost 4-2 at home. Despite that initial setback, Kumbedi was soon back in the squad following his suspension and he made his first Ligue 2 start in a 2-1 defeat at Ajaccio in April 2022.
Euro glory and a brace in the final
The UEFA U17 Championship took place in Israel the following month and Kumbedi was by now an integral part of Alcocer’s team, alongside future stars such as Warren Zaïre-Emery and Mathys Tel. He got a pair of assists in France’s opening 6-1 win over Poland and played again in the 4-0 victory against Bulgaria before being rested for the final group game against the Netherlands with France already qualified for the knockout stages.
Kumbedi was ever-present at right-back from there on as France got past Germany and Portugal on penalties in the quarter and semi-finals, providing another assist along the way. They faced the Netherlands again in the final at the Netanya Stadium and Kumbedi was the star of the show, scoring both goals as France came from behind in the second half to win 2-1 and lift the trophy.
Lyon come a-calling
During the summer break, Le Havre replaced manager Paul Le Guen with Luka Elsner and the new boss started Kumbedi in the first game of the season, a goalless draw against Grenoble. Three more substitute appearances followed before Lyon made their move to snap him up in the final days of the transfer window.
Saël Kumbedi made his Lyon debut on matchday nine of the 2022-23 Ligue 1 season as a 74th minute substitute for Nicolás Tagliafico in a 1-0 defeat at Lens. He didn’t feature again until the season resumed after the pause for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but he was a regular throughout the second half of the campaign, making twenty league appearances and providing three assists as Lyon finished seventh.
He has been a regular starter so far this season under Laurent Blanc and his replacement Fabio Grosso and has now earned caps for France at U18 and U19 levels. Having recently signed a contract extension until June 2027, Saël Kumbedi looks set to be a fixture in the Lyon line-up for years to come.