By Susie Schaaf.
The Winterpause (yes, “winter break”) has hit Bundesliga fans all over the world, and while most are anxious to see their teams back in action, there is time for reflection on the Hinrunde (“first half”), and an entirely new, young crop of wonderful league talent marching up the ranks. Here’s a list of five young men – in no particular order – that have been excelling for their respective sides.
Niklas Süle. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. Center back. 19 years old.
At a commanding six feet four inches tall, young Süle is the prototypical German centre-back. Perhaps a bit weak in concentration now, he only looks to get better with age. Hoffenheim are currently clinging on to seventh place in the league – the final European spot – while he’s been exemplary; standing tall in front of goalkeeper Oliver Baumann with 33 tackles (at a 77% success rate) in 15 appearances domestically.
Adding 26 interceptions, 89 clearances and 16 blocks – plus an average of more than 3.7 aerial duels won per match – it’s unfortunate that he suffered knee ligament damage so close to the winter break, in a match against Eintracht Frankfurt. Although it’s likely he’ll miss the rest of the season, the German that has featured for his nation’s under-16’s and under-21’s, will be a terrifying prospect once healthy again.
Abdul Rahman Baba. FC Augsburg. Left back. 20 years old.
The Ghanaian left back has started all 17 matches in the first half of the season – only being subbed out once – as coach Markus Weinzierl has led FCA to their best ever first half in the top flight. Augsburg, currently sixth in the table, have excelled in Bundesliga with defensive challenges won – with Baba collecting 60 tackles, 46 interceptions, 65 clearances and eight blocks.
There was a bit of consternation on the part of Weinzierl concerning Baba’s national team duties in October, when the player was released late by Ghana. “We are dependent on him to come back healthy, and in good time,” said the Augsburg coach at a press conference, underlining the need for his starting wing back.
Hakan Calhanoglu. Bayer Leverkusen. Attacking midfield. 20 years old.
Not new to the “spectacular youth radar”, Calhanoglu has featured on practically everyone’s list for a couple of years now. His free-kick legend status would begin with Hamburger SV for the 2013/14 season, and his transfer to Bayer Leverkusen for the start of this season has done nothing to diminish it.
He’s started every match in ‘Kusen’s first half, but his totals are relatively modest: Four goals, 37 chances and two assists; completing 71% of his passes. But, the German-born Turkish international scoffs at your statistics – that’s not what he’s around for! Calhanoglu exists as a fantastic free-kick specialist; possibly (no, definitely) the best in the Bundesliga. If you harbor any doubts then watch this. And then watch it again.
Johannes Geis. 1. FSV Mainz 05. Defensive midfield. 21 years old.
The German international, born in Schweinfurt, has featured – like Süle – in every stage of youth competition for Deutschland. Domestically he’s scored one goal, assisted twice, while creating 40 chances. Perhaps average numbers for a defensive midfielder, but Geis has a nose for Mainz’ high-tempo attacks. Every pass he’s completed this season has gone forward. Yes, 100% of them.
Mainz got off to a flying start this season under new trainer Kasper Hjulmand; one of four teams to remain unbeaten after eight matchdays. Since then it’s been a slippery slope and they currently lie 12th in the table. But Geis learned plenty in his initial year at the club with Thomas Tuchel, and one can only wonder who will snap him up.
Juan Bernat. FC Bayern Munich. Left back. 21 years old.
The slight, left-side Spaniard raised some eyebrows coming from Valencia CF, but he’d grow to prove his doubters wrong. How do you replace David Alaba? He showed just how it is done. Bernat featured in every match in Bayern’s record-breaking first half with 32 tackles, 23 interceptions, 28 clearances and four blocks — all the while completing nearly 90% percent of his passes. Munich’s defence has given up just four domestic goals.
Bernat has also featured at every level for Spain’s national team; winning the UEFA under-19’s title in 2012, and has also been capped twice for the senior side, scoring once. His contract with the Bavarian giants runs until 2019, and like a fine Tempranillo he looks to age well.
Postscript: As I prepared to write this article Saturday morning, I jotted down names – off the top of my head – of players that I thought deserved recognition for their talent. Wolfsburg’s Junior Malanda was one of the eleven that I whittled down to five. Sadly, tragically, he passed away Saturday afternoon, in a windswept car accident, on his way to meet up with the team to travel for their winter training in South Africa.
He was next on my list.
“Junior” Bernard Malanda-Adje. VfL Wolfsburg. Defensive midfielder. 20 years old.
The Belgian talent signed from Zulte Waregem to Wolfsburg in 2013, only to be loaned back to his former club until the start of this season. Making 10 league appearances, as well as three in Europa League competition, he would finish the first half with two assists and six chances while peppering the Wolves opponents’ midfield with an 83% pass rate. Not afraid of a foul, the hard-nosed tackler jumped in to the fray often; winning 55% of his duels, and featured for every Belgian youth national team side up to under-21’s.
Malanda’s family and friends, the Bundesliga and Belgium have lost a rising star. At just 20 years of age. Some will mourn – in footballing terms – what might have been, but more importantly, a young man died too damn soon.