Hugo Ekitike had played 86 minutes of league football for Stade Reims prior to this season. Eighteen games, eight goals and one huge bid from Newcastle later, his progress has been remarkable.
“Hugo came back in pre-season and was the fourth striker on our list,” Reims coach Oscar Garcia tells Sky Sports. It did not take long for that to change. “We saw during that pre-season that he had a lot of the qualities required to become a top striker.”
At 19, Ekitike’s strike rate stands out. His eight goals have come in just 956 minutes of football, with four of them scored from inside the six-yard box. He is already proving himself to be an expert goal poacher but there is more to his game than that.
“Technically he is so good,” says Oscar.
“He is fast. He has to develop a little bit more physically but he is a player who, for me, can play for a top club. We have improved him. He should keep improving.”
This is the model at Stade Reims. Twelve players under the age of 21 have featured in the league this season, far more than any Premier League club. The plan is to develop them and then move them on. The interest in Ekitike suggests that the policy working.
Oscar is naturally frustrated when young talent departs but he understood the remit when he arrived in the summer. “It is not normal that what a club explains to you before signing is true, but here it is true. We have young players, talented players,” he explains.
“The philosophy of the club is to promote those young players, give them the chance to play in a good league before going to a bigger club in another country. I like so much to be working with these young players. For me, it is a gift. It is fantastic as a coach.”
Reims is a famous old club. Champions of France six times, they twice reached the final of the European Cup and were 25 minutes away from winning it against Real Madrid in 1956. Raymond Kopa was poached and then played against them in the 1959 final.
Those days are gone but Reims are still going. Oscar is trying to fuse the two styles that have influenced him as player and coach. His ideas are rooted in Barcelona but he learned from his time at Red Bull Salzburg too, where Ralf Rangnick’s pressing game is king.
“The vision that I have is a clear philosophy,” he explains. “I grew up at Barcelona. I played for Barcelona for 18 years. Afterwards, I coached the U19 team there. With the ball, we continue to work a lot with the same philosophy and the same movements.
“But I also wanted to learn from other philosophies. That was the reason why I went abroad to coach. One of the best places was Salzburg because I learned what to do without the ball. They call it ‘against the ball’. I learnt the philosophy of the Red Bull organisation.
“I went there to improve myself because I don’t know everything. I learned a lot about the game without the ball. It was very clear in each part of the pitch, how to press, how to do the counter-pressing. I have tried to do this ever since.”
English football has had an impact on him. He coached Brighton and Watford, still recalling his first experience of the Championship. “It was away to Leeds United. When I came out from the dressing room, the noise was amazing, the support of the people.
“I was thinking, ‘Here is my place.’ I learned a lot from the players, the mentality of the British players. It is very different. To play every two or three days, I was not used to coaching a team like that. I had to adapt my training sessions there.”
First and foremost though, he is a child of Johan Cruyff, the man who gave him his debut at Barcelona aged just 17. “To train every day with him was to go to school. You would go to each training session with your eyes wide open because you want to learn.
“The most important thing he taught us was to understand the game – to see what is happening and why it is happening and what we can do to change things. I never had a coach like this. A teacher. Every day was a school day, every day was a lesson.
“It was a fantastic education. I had the chance to play with Figo, Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Laudrup, Stoichkov. Prosinecki was a big surprise to me. He was a fantastic player, almost impossible to get the ball back from him because he was so strong physically.”
How would he cope with the chain-smoking Robert Prosinecki or the party lifestyle of Romario as a coach? “I made some mistakes that I don’t want my young players to repeat. Maybe they can make other mistakes but not the mistakes I made,” he says, laughing.
“I hope they remember me like I remember Johan Cruyff! He taught me a lot of things. Now, my idea is to teach these players to have all the knowledge of how to play, how to understand the game, to think for themselves and not only do what the coach asks.
“With young players, you should not just be constantly telling them to do this or that. They need creativity. Of course, you should give them some instructions but they are not machines. They should develop themselves, have freedom to show their potential.”
There is a process behind it. One-on-one conversations with youngsters such as Ekitike help to work out what motivates them, how they respond to challenges. “The first thing I liked to do is know their personality so I interview them all individually,” he explains.
“It helps you to realise which ones you can give freedom to and which ones you cannot. You have to treat everyone differently because they are individuals with their own character.”
It was in Salzburg that he identified a young talent signed from Austria’s second division. “Very quickly I said this guy should train with the first team. He became a starter very soon afterwards.” That player was Dayot Upamecano. He joined Bayern Munich last summer.
“I fell in love with him. He is the clear example of a modern centre-back. He had everything. He was really fast, really strong, good in the build-up with the first pass, strong in the duels and can play with metres behind him. He is one of the best I have ever coached.”
A defender of Upamecano’s quality would be useful now, but Ekitike’s decision to continue his development at Reims is a bonus. “Of course, logically, I would like to keep some players to be better in the league and maybe play in Europe. It is not easy.”
Oscar has ambitions of his own. The Premier League remains a goal. He will never give up hope that the opportunity to coach Barcelona will come one day. “It is the club of my heart. I want to improve as a coach every day. Developing young players, I am proud of this.”
Ekitike is just beginning his journey.
“He is young and has to improve some things but with a good coach, the right coach, I am sure that he can become a very good striker.”
For now, Oscar is the right coach. And when Ekitike does move on, for Reims, the process of developing his replacement will continue.