Basel could hit Manchester City with Dimitri Oberlin's blistering pace
Manchester City are most vulnerable when they are attacked at speed in transition. That was clear in the 4-3 defeat at Anfield and Jamie Vardy's strike for Leicester on Saturday served as another good example. That is why Basel coach Raphael Wicky might be tempted to gamble on Dimitri Obertin when he faces Pep Guardiola's team on Tuesday in the Champions League round-of-16 clash.
It would be very difficult to find a faster player than Oberlin, and the whole world sat and took notice of his ability in September, as Basel demolished Benfica 5-0. The striker scored twice and was involved in two more goals on his 20th birthday, but it was one specific move that made a long-lasting impression.
Oberlin started it by heading away a Benfica corner in his own penalty area and then raced ahead to cover the entire pitch in just 12 seconds. His incredible speed reached 38 kilometers per hour at one point but he wasn't too tired when receiving a magnificent return pass from Renato Steffen. Two touches were enough to put the ball past the veteran goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
Oberlin was given nicknames like Usain Oberlin and Air Oberlin; even Switzerland's best sprinter, Alex Wilson, was interviewed about the performance. Initially reluctant to hail an unusual "rival," he was eventually forced to admit that "for a footballer, he has done that perfectly."
A star was born that evening but Oberlin always knew he had the ability to shine. A very close friend of Breel Embolo, and born in the Cameroon capital Yaounde in 1997 just like him, Oberlin was at times quite jealous of the man who burst on the scene with Basel back in 2014. Oberlin didn't understand that he needed to mature before making his mark and attitude issues significantly slowed his progress.
Having won the under-15 championship title with Lausanne, Oberlin chose FC Zurich over Grasshoppers with promises that the route to the first team would be fast. However, coach Urs Meier was reluctant to use the inexperienced youngster, who became restless and even threatened to quit football for good. Part of that influence came from the player's family, as Zurich president Ancillo Caneppa remarked upon selling him to FC Salzburg in the summer of 2015: "I don't want to deal with hysterical mothers who claim that their sons are as good as Embolo."
Oberlin just wanted to play regularly. That is why he refused a chance to join the Manchester United academy, didn't want to hear of moving to RB Leipzig and preferred to stay in the less glamorous Austrian league instead. And yet, even when those relatively modest aspirations were not fulfilled. Salzburg mostly used him in their feeder club, FC Liefering, in the second division during the 2015-16 season before loaning him out to Altach.
That is where everything had finally clicked. The tiny town on the Swiss border was the perfect place to grow as the player himself readily admitted: "There is not much going on and I have more time to concentrate on football. I had a bit of trouble with that in the past." With wily coach Damir Canadi taking Oberlin under his wing, the youngster exploded with five goals in his first four matches and the unfashionable side even led the table at the winter break.
Austrian fans suspected that the loan was cut short by Salzburg in the beginning of 2017 purely to weaken their sudden rivals and those assumptions were likely correct because Oberlin, who scored nine goals for Altach, was very rarely used in the second half of the season. There's another reason, though. Air Oberlin's speed made him the perfect fit for the reactive, counter-attacking style used by Altach but he is much less suited for the possession football favoured by the former Salzburg coach Oscar Garcia. Oberlin is hardly effective if there are no free spaces to explore, which would also explain his fortunes at Basel.
The Austrian champions were getting tired of Oberlin's antics, which included accusations of domestic violence by his former girlfriend that were eventually settled out of court this month, and loaned him out to Embolo's former club, FC Basel, last summer. And while Oberlin can't come close to his friend's impact in the Swiss Super League yet, given that he's had just seven games in the starting lineup and four goals in 16 fixtures, he has been extraordinary in the Champions League.
In Switzerland, Basel are the team to beat and Oberlin's ability to score against tight defences is limited, while his rather selfish approach leaves a lot to be desired in a possession-based gameplan. In Europe, though, he can run freely, while his work ethic and stamina are also handy defensively when Basel don't have the ball.
"Dimitri is incredibly fast and is capable of quality dribbling at times, but lacks consistency, must improve his passing and should learn a lot tactically. He can shine in one game and disappear in the next. He could become a star in the future, but isn't even a certain starter for Basel at the moment," Florian Raz, sports editor at Tages-Anzeiger, tells ESPN FC.
The stunning show against Benfica in September made him a revelation. He then proceeded to score the crucial goal against a slow CSKA Moscow defence in the 2-0 win in Russia, netting again in the 2-0 triumph in Lisbon. With four Champions League goals to his name, it is little wonder that he is reportedly being tracked by numerous scouts.
"I hope to play for Real Madrid one day," he says, even though those dreams are unrealistic at the moment.
His role model had always been Barcelona star Luis Suarez. Nowadays, though, he pays special attention to players who are closer to him in style, like Leroy Sane and Marcus Rashford. That is another step in the right direction, with Basel coach Raphael Wicky carefully turning the rough diamond into a legitimate performer by playing to his strengths.
With that in mind, Salzburg might regret including a €5 million buyout clause into the loan agreement. Basel, who sold Embolo to Schalke for €25 million in 2016, are likely to use the opportunity to try and make a handsome profit. A decent performance against Manchester City would do no harm at all but it remains to be seen whether the Swiss champions are bold enough to unleash Oberlin against the Premier League leaders.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.