Remember the Names
Football is a commitment. A commitment to a never-ending journey that sees the highs and lows of the sport. From the excitement from scoring a goal, to the agony of conceding a last-minute penalty, and to the euphoria of winning trophies, football is a roller coaster ride that just can’t seem to stop. Amongst those highs, is witnessing the career progression of a youth prospect to a world beater. Fans would feel almost entitled to the achievements of these young players, claiming to be the ones who uncovered their talents, arguing that if not for them, the young players would not have made it this far. And rightly so, for the development strategy employed at certain clubs are mostly driven and motivated by the fans.
The Bundesliga’s constant knack for producing wonderkids is a credit to the youth development strategy employed by clubs across Germany. Last season saw the breakthrough of a certain Norwegian forward scoring 13 goals in 15 games, whilst a certain Canadian left back tore up defenses, helping his team win the treble. This season has arguably been more exciting with the emergence of Jude Bellingham and Youssoufa Moukoko for Dortmund, aged just 17 and 16, respectively. The recent inclusion of Jamal Musiala to the Euros squad is telling of how highly the German FA and Bayern Munich rate the young forward.
Perhaps the one with the least media attention amongst the youth prospects, has arguably been the best performer of the bunch. Fresh off his 18th birthday, Florian Wirtz has taken the league by storm and has been one of Leverkusen’s better performers this season.
The dashboard below shows why Wirtz is highly regarded as one of the wonderkids to look out for in the future, when compared to other midfielders in the Bundesliga. This analysis will cover the German’s performance with club and country this season. All figures below are based on performance per 90 minutes played, according to FBref via StatsBomb.
If You’re Good Enough..
“The best midfielder to come through the club in 30-years.” -Kolner Express
Florian Wirtz was a product of the Billy Goats ever since he was 7 and has led them to Bundesliga glory in youth levels. Interest from Europe’s elite had always been tempting, but the opportunities afforded at Leverkusen was perhaps the route most suited in his development. It only took Wirtz four U17 games to convince the coaches that he isn’t as good as they think he is, he is much better. Upon the restart in football, he made his debut against Werder Bremen, becoming the league’s third youngest debutant at 16 years of age — A record that only lasted for 6 months as Moukoko broke it, but that period saw the teenager established himself as one of the first names in Peter Bosz’s team sheets.
Predominantly as an attacking midfielder, Wirtz can also play as part of a midfield three with his preference to operate within the right half spaces. The teenager’s development has soared through the roof this season, proving himself to be the lynchpin in Leverkusen’s midfield and more importantly, a constant presence in the final third for them. Peter Bosz faith and trust on the youngster has clearly been reflected in Wirtz effort and performances this season, as he currently exerts the second most pressures in the attacking third per90 with 6.88 and 21.9 touches in the attacking third per90 as well. He is very much involved on and off the ball for Leverkusen.
Ever since the departure of Kai Havertz to Chelsea last season, the bulk of the creativity burden is place on Wirtz’s shoulders. Considering this was his first full season with the club, he has done remarkably well with 6 assists. To put in contrast, when Havertz was 17 on his first full season, he only managed 4. This season, the teenager ranks amongst the more efficient chance creators in the leagues amongst midfielders with 3.48 shot-creating actions per90, with 0.4 converted into goals a game. This greatly signifies the sheer volume of chances created and he can thank his teammates for converting those chances into goals.
Perhaps what aids him in his creativity output is his maturity in game intelligence and the recognition of space. The German is incredibly intelligent, often playing with a sense of maturity in him. His movement into open space is not spoken enough about as it has helped conjure up chances for Leverkusen on a regular basis.
Take the Dortmund game as an example, As Amiri receives the long ball forward from Tah, Wirtz recognizes the space ahead of him is free with nobody marking nor tracking him as they were too fixated on the ball. Wirtz burst into the open space for whilst calling for the ball and receives it just outside the box. He patiently waits for Diaby to arrive before releasing it but to no avail.
As mentioned earlier, Wirtz has a preference to drift to right half spaces to look for opportunities. He is capable of crossing the ball with a slick technique that creates optimal backspin. The assist against Monchengladbach is a perfect illustration of his crossing techniques. As he receives the ball just inside the right channel, he proceeds to produce a pinpoint cross that lands perfectly for Alario for the equalizer.
Wirtz’s passing and creativity has undoubted helped Leverkusen unlocked many defenses this season. With 1.98 key passes per90, he ranks higher than creative playmakers like Dani Olmo, Gio Reyna and former Leverkusen prodigy, Julian Brandt. This is testament to his range of passes that has seen him adopt the creativity hub role at Leverkusen. The defence splitting balls is a common weapon of his arsenal, as he looks to exploit the pace of Diaby and Bailey constantly with through balls. In fact, he ranks 7th for through balls completed amongst midfielders with 0.24 per90, tied with Thomas Muller and Marco Reus, both established playmakers in the Bundesliga for more than a decade.
That said, he is also capable of distributing diagonals to attackers between the lines. Whenever dropping deep to receive the ball, Wirtz would instinctively look up the pitch for teammates, in hopes of picking them out with a long ball. His assist against Young Boys perfectly depicts his quality. Upon receiving the ball, he is instantly pressed but managed to maneuver his way out of trouble before picking out Diaby for his assist, showcasing his ability to dictate play from deep.
With Diaby and Bailey in the team, Leverkusen are not scarce of great dribblers in the team. Florian Wirtz is no slouch in this regard either, in fact he has achieved a higher success rate than Diaby with 67.4% to the latter’s 56.9%. The teenage sensation is not the biggest in stature but that does not necessarily translate into a disadvantage, instead it grants him with mobility to glide past players easily and the agility to maneuver the ball in tight situations. This season, only 3 other midfielders achieved more successful dribbles than Wirtz’s 2.51 per90, Mangala with 2.65, and Younes with 4, and Harit with 4.12.
The youngster’s excellent technique and ball control enables him to be more press-resistant than others. At just 18, the midfielder is amongst the league’s most press-resistant players with 9.92 passes made whilst being pressed per90, proving to be extraordinarily adept and composed in tight situations with opponents biting away. Though not blessed with raw pace, Wirtz’s fleet foot enables him to get the better of his opponents with ease. Whenever faced up 1v1, Wirtz would look to throw them off balance with body feints whilst maneuvering the ball on the opposite direction. Once opponents are caught flat footed, he’d accelerate forward, dribbling past the markers. This coupled with his ball carrying abilities makes him almost impossible to beat 1v1.
In the game against Stuttgart, Wirtz picks up the ball the left wing and looks to drift inwards to influence play in a more familiar position. He first glides past Stuttgart’s enforcer in Endo before dropping a shoulder with a body feint against Mangala comfortably. As he finds himself space, he plays a brilliant through ball forward to Fosu-Mensah who had a shot on target. Once again, highlight the German’s quick feet and impressive dribbling to evade obstacles like they weren’t there.
Coming back to his slight stature, though he isn’t massive, his stability and low center of gravity has provided him much needed balance when evading challenges. Staying strong in challenges and never shrugging off a challenge. The goal he scored against Hoffenheim perfectly illustrates his brilliant control and stability. As the German picks up the ball outside the penalty box, he looks to dribble into the box but was met with a strong challenge from his marker. He somehow defies the laws of physics and just about maintains his balance and produces a cheeky ball roll to evade the challenge of the defender ahead, before chipping it past the keeper. The teenager certainly made it look simpler than it actually is.
Eye for a Goal
Though not the most prolific in front of goal, Florian Wirtz certainly has the capability and intelligence to play there in the future if needed. The 18-year-old has 5 goals this campaign and the two goals he scored in the recent U21 Euro Semi-Final against the Dutch would certainly be a confidence booster for him next season. This season, Wirtz has accumulated 1.26 shots per90, which is slightly lesser than the league average for midfielders with 1.295. That said, he is incredibly clinical for the low volume of shots he takes, scoring 0.16 goals/shot per90.
The goals scored by Wirtz is testament to his exploitation of space. As alluded to earlier, his movement and game intelligence is years beyond his age. The midfielder constantly looks for dangerous areas to occupy when receiving the ball. When in transition, the midfielder will constant look to make blindsided runs to avoid detections, coupled with a burst of pace to get to the end of a pass with his brilliant anticipation.
His goal against Stuttgart is a good example to illustrate his intelligent movement and goal scoring instincts. Upon receiving the ball he drives it forward before passing it to Schick. While his marker is ball watching, he continued his run into the box, anticipating a cross from Diaby. The cross did arrive and he scored, unmarked.
Past vs Present
As Havertz completed his €80 million move away to Chelsea, Leverkusen reinvested the money in purchasing Patrik Schick and Demarai Gray as attacking reinforcements for the season. The rest of the money were spent on bolstering the defence. Evidently or rather surprisingly, no money was invested in bringing a midfielder to fill in the massive void left by their former juggernaut. This was perhaps the clearance indication of confidence shown in Florian Wirtz, who many believe have what it takes to step up at the BayArena. As such, I have decided to compare both players with each other, to see how the current prodigy fares against Havertz’s 2019/20 performance.
As presented, Havertz was clearly more of a goal threat compared to the teenager with more goals registered per90. Nevertheless, Wirtz has shown this season that he has the making of a great goal scorer, with his movement and anticipation only to improve with experience and time. Perhaps the transfer of Schick was done to shed the goal burden left by Havertz, with Wirtz taking more responsibility creating them, instead of finishing them.
The Chelsea man has also been a better playmaker for Leverkusen, but Wirtz numbers are not too far apart in Key Passes, passes into the Penalty Area and Expected Assists. That said, Wirtz have proved to be a much more progressive passer compared to Havertz, signifying the deeper role he is tasked to operate this season. Though Havertz is more adept at ball carrying, the young gun is a much better dribbler than his predecessor, further showcasing his specialty in dribbles.
Defensively, Florian Wirtz has been an ever present for Die Werkself, constantly pressing and winning back possession for the team. Though both are rather poor in their tackles and interceptions, it is still the current prodigy who is more adept defensively for Leverkusen.
Has Wirtz surpassed Havertz this season and filled in the void? Definitely not, not yet at least. Nonetheless, these numbers are very encouraging to the 18-year-old in his first full season in the Bundesliga. It took Havertz a season or two to get to the level he is now — scoring in a Champions League Final- But I personally think Wirtz wouldn’t be too bothered about the comparisons, as it is vital the youngster focuses on sharpening his game instead. Under the tutelage of Bosz, Wirtz may well become the next big thing in German football.
Though many would still compare the two players, Wirtz would be more determined to make a name for himself instead.
Remember the Name, Florian Wirtz.