An Exclusive Interview with Joel Latibeaudiere
Amid the COVID–19 lockdown, Joe Donnohue had the pleasure of speaking to Manchester City’s Joel Latibeaudiere over Zoom to talk through the 20-year-old’s fledgling career – from winning the U-17 World Cup to his time at Twente, as well as his City future.
As England lined up ahead of the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup Final at the Salt Lake Stadium in
Kolkata, 66,000 spectators bayed for the gladiatorial entrance of 22 teenagers. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the tunnel with Spain captain and Barcelona youngster Abel Ruiz was Joel Latibeaudiere, the boy wearing the armband for England.
“We wanted to beat them so bad,” Joel recalls.
England had dispatched of Brazil in the semi-final, the USA in the quarters, as well as seeing
off Japan, Iraq, Mexico and Chile on the road to the competition’s grand finale. Joel had played every minute.
“Just before we went out to start the warm-up, we were just like, ‘we know what happened
last time when we faced them in a final, it’s not gonna happen again.’”
Despite England’s heroics in the Indian summer of October 2017, five months earlier the
same Spain side had defeated them in the final of the U-17 European Championship. Joel
had played that day too, as England took a 2-1 lead before being pegged back in the sixth
minute of stoppage time at the end of the second half.
Penalty shoot-out agony followed, as it so often does for England. Joel took what proved to
be England’s final spot-kick, stepping up and sending his over the bar. As he stood there in the depths of the Salt Lake Stadium, Joel Latibeaudiere knew this was a shot at redemption, not just for him, but the entire team. It would be the last time the squad would play together as a group of U-17s. Jadon Sancho had already been recalled by club side Borussia Dortmund, but Phil Foden, Rhian Brewster and Callum Hudson-Odoi remained. They were set to be fast-tracked to play amongst the older age groups.
A footballing swansong at the age of 17 is somewhat of a contradiction, but it was true – this was the final shot for a prodigious youth cycle blessed with talent; an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to claim deserved silverware.
Except, England found themselves 2-0 down within 31 minutes. Two Sergio Gómez strikes
threatened to put England out of their misery nice and early this time. But, on the stroke of
half-time, Rhian Brewster struck his eighth goal of the tournament. They were back in it.
“The team-talk at half-time was even more intense, ‘right, we’ve got them, they’re on the
back foot, they’re tired, let’s really push’, and I think that switch kind of went off in our
Morgan Gibbs-White equalised 13 minutes after the restart as Spain’s resolve buckled and their lead disappeared. England were purring now, and, right on cue, their player of the tournament – the Player of the Tournament – Phil Foden stepped up with a vital goal, wheeling away in Marco Tardelli-like fashion before he was mobbed by the England bench.
Spain had gone. Another two goals followed, first Latibeaudiere headed a free-kick down into Marc Guehi’s path who stabbed the ball in gleefully, before a second from Foden capped a tremendous fightback in the sweltering humidity of Kolkata.
That was almost three years ago. Fast-forward to 2020 and Joel is speaking to us following the premature, pandemic-induced curtailment of the Eredivisie season, where he had spent the year on loan at FC Twente.
He recounts the feeling of lifting the World Cup trophy, and the self-belief that group had: “We knew we could do it and go and win it. During it, we were all playing good, the group was together and yeah, being the captain was a great feeling. The players had so much respect for me.”
There aren’t too many Englishmen to have captained their sides to a World Cup win, but
Joel is one of them. It followed an U-18 Premier League-winning campaign in 2016-17, in
which Latibeaudiere captained a Manchester City side that won 17 times and lost once, conceding the fewest goals in the North Division.
Joel describes it as by far his best season to date. It isn’t hard to see why. Captaining his club
side to a domestic title, shortly before captaining his country to a world title. He may have
been part of two extremely talented groups, but nevertheless, it is a commendation of his leadership.
“The coach [Steve Cooper] had a lot of respect for me from watching me play at club level
where I captained the teams at youth level at Man City. I’ve never been scared to state my opinion. Say if we’re in a set-piece meeting and I see something that maybe the coaches want to do different I would say, ‘what about if we do this, what about if we do that?’”
He’s no shrinking violet, and he’s not one to hide his opinions for fear of speaking out of turn. A self-proclaimed aggressive centre-back, Latibeaudiere talks the talk and backs it up on the pitch.
His rise was following a similar trajectory to some of his currently more-established team-mates, playing and, on occasion, captaining Manchester City’s Ui-23 side at the age of 18. That was before a knee injury kept him out of action for the best part of a year. Sustained in September 2018, he would not return to the pitch until August 2019.
“It was obviously not the best of times to pick up an injury but things happen and you have to get over them to overcome them,” he insists. "I wanted to push to go out on loan that January window, just so I could get a half-season playing men’s football, so the injury prevented me from doing that.”
Over 300 days later, Joel retook to the field in a big game against Tottenham Hotspur U-23s.
“Knowing I could play in that [game] after my injury, that’s what gave me the motivation like, ‘yeah, I’m still here, I’m still the player that I am.’”
Joel returns to the mentality he feels he has forged multiple times throughout our interview. He is an advocate of mental toughness, but concedes his lay-off was more psychologically draining than he anticipated. Not one to rest on his laurels, as no England captain should, his recovery from the knee injury incorporated much work off the pitch.
“I did a lot of strength training so I could come back stronger, worked on what I wasn’t the best at so I did analysis and loads of things like that, watched my games so when I was back I could try and implement that,” he says of his 11 months out of action.
Latibeaudiere had initially recovered, before being dealt a crushing setback, injuring the same knee meaning he would have to begin his recovery from scratch. Almost a year out of the game when he had barely established himself as a footballer was far from ideal.
Nevertheless, the England youth international is now playing at U-20 level for his country, and captaining the team once again. He has recently turned 20 years-old himself and spent much of last summer co-ordinating with Manchester City’s scouts and loans team in an attempt to find a suitable club where he could play first-team football.
Clearly tuned in to the footballing world outside of his Sky Blue bubble, Joel waxes lyrical of the Eredivisie and its reputation for developing young players.
“I’ve seen a lot of young players go to Holland and come back better players; the likes of [Manchester City team-mate] Matt Smith, Mason Mount and obviously the youngsters that come through at Ajax and everything, that’s why I ended up going to Holland.”
Unafraid to speak up and unafraid to tread a path taken by his U-17 World Cup team-mate Jadon Sancho, Latibeaudiere embarked on a season-long loan with a foreign side: FC Twente.
“Obviously, living abroad was massive,” he says, speaking fondly and sentimentally about his experience. I got used to it quite quick, the team took me in, it was a great group of lads. The hardest thing for me to get used to was definitely the football.”
It may come as a surprise to many that a leading Manchester City youth-team player found football the most difficult thing to acclimatise to, but Joel articulates himself well in describing the transition.
“Playing for Man City U-23s, we were one of the most dominant teams in the league so we didn’t really have to change the style of play too much because we knew we would dominate opponents with our possession.
“To then go to FC Twente, who aren’t a top, top team in the Eredivisie, just promoted, seeing how we’d approach games, we’d be sat back waiting to counter. That side of the tactics really helped my football IQ.”
“It was nice to experience different tactics and see how different managers look at the game and what they ask you to do.”
Some players would have left the state-of-the-art training facilities at Manchester City and regressed into their shell at a foreign club, particularly during long periods out of the side and after a long injury lay-off, but not Latibeaudiere.
Despite not playing as frequently as he would have liked, he recalls the training intensity as something he will take with him into next season.
“I didn’t have the starting XI shirt so fighting for that, I got a lot of enjoyment out of that. Seeing how much people in training wanted that shirt was really like ‘wow’ to me; to see how intense the training was every day, and how competitive the games were at the end.”
It’s not only aspects of a footballing sense that Joel says he will take on board from the loan. He feels his time in the Netherlands has aided him enormously in his personal development.
“That was a big thing for me, and I’ll definitely take away from it, knowing I can move abroad on my own and live in a foreign country on my own by myself.”
And so, to the future. Latibeaudiere remains a Manchester City player; one of their more decorated and experienced U-23s. Bridging the gap from reserve football to stepping out in front of 55,000 at the Etihad Stadium is enough to make even the most talented youngster gulp with trepidation.
There is encouragement to be taken from the club’s policy towards youth in recent seasons. Local teenager Taylor Harwood-Bellis made his competitive debut for the club this year, while Eric García – one of Spain’s substitutes at the 2017 Under-17 World Cup final – has also featured in Pep Guardiola’s team at centre-back, albeit sporadically.
“It’s great to see the amount of trust the first-team and the first-team staff and the manager have in the youth system,” Joel says.
He doesn’t fear slipping through the net and his best games being missed by the key decision-makers either. Txiki Begiristain and “the manager” are “always watching, all the 23 games,” according to the centre-back.
Our discussion soon turns to the topic of pathways to the first-team, the endgame for Latibeaudiere; “It just gives you more motivation because you know if you have that one good training session, if you keep repeating and he sees that in you, he will give you the chance. It definitely motivates the whole academy and shows that there is a pathway.”
There is a sense that Joel’s career is one that is close to kicking into gear. It had got off to a tremendous start, but has stalled through no fault of his own. Now, he is slowly but surely on the road to proving his leadership qualities once again.
He has had the mettle to return from a serious injury, establish himself as a captain at another youth international group with England and taken a leap of faith in moving to the Netherlands.
And of his character, what does Joel hope that says about him as a player and a person?
“[I’m] not scared to for the opportunity to come. I’m ready, I’ve always been ready for that first first-team call-up, wherever it is.”
As Joel Latibeaudiere stood there in the tunnel of the Salt Lake Stadium, running through his mind will have been the penalty miss five months earlier and his plan for what would follow.
Ninety minutes later, he lifted the World Cup – his crowning achievement to date.
An 11-month injury lay-off, seeing his peers make their debuts and a global pandemic may not have been what he envisaged at that moment in time, but as he reiterates throughout, they are hurdles he must overcome.
“I just want to prove it to the main people that I’m ready and I can do it – and that’s just it.”
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