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Phil Baki brings you the next edition of this series and talks about the best U-19 players to watch out for in Bundesliga this season.
The Bundesliga has become a focal point of youth development advocates and theorists due to changes in the German system that were implemented after the World Cup in 2002. These revolutionary changes have become known as Das Reboot, due to Raphael Honigstein’s book by the same name. They’ve also contributed to success for the national side, so much so that bookmakers such as RealBet Sportsbook make them among the favourites ahead of most football tournaments. This year, the class of Under-19 players in the Bundesliga has a distinctly foreign flavor to it due to the business that the German clubs have done in the window. Without further ado, here are the top 10 Young Players to Watch in the Bundesliga.
Renato Sanches // Bayern Munich // 19 // Central Midfielder
The first few names on this list are not going to surprise you. This first name should surprise you least of all. Renato Sanches announced his presence on the world stage at Euro 2016 with a thunderous strike to equalize against Poland in the Round of 16. The strike aside though, it was obvious that the Portuguese National Team had a star on their hands.
Sanches had been a part of Benfica’s system since he was 9 years old, having grown up in a poor neighborhood of Lisbon. At 17 years old, he found his way to the Benfica “B” squad and after an electrifying year there, he was moved to the senior squad. He made 45 appearances for Aguias, registering 5 goals and an assist in that time. It was enough to impress Bayern Munich, who came calling this summer and lured Sanches to Bavaria.
Sanches for Bayern is going to be seen as the player to replace the veteran Xabi Alonso in the heart of midfield. He is most often utilized in central midfield and as a defensive midfielder and he will be expected to dictate play as he matures. His composure on the ball, power and passing ability have been noticed but it was his scoring ability that put him in the spotlight. He will get plenty of opportunities from Carlo Ancelotti this season despite a crowded Bayern midfield. Playing alongside the likes of Arturo Vidal, Thiago, and Xabi Alonso will certainly help Renato Sanches to remain in that spotlight for a long, long time.
Ousmane Dembele // Borussia Dortmund // 19 // Attacking Midfielder
Do you ever watch a player and think, ‘my word, we may be watching a future great’? That is the feeling that I get when I watch Borussia Dortmund’s new boy Ousmane Dembele. Born in Normandy, Dembele was plying his trade for small clubs in that area when he caught the eye of Rennes. Dembele had been at Rennes since he was 13. Like Renato Sanches, it took just one senior season to prove that he deserved a move. 12 goals in 26 appearances for the Breton club was a fantastic return and it does not take an awful long time for even the untrained eye to see what Dortmund have. This was not Dortmund’s first foray into the French markets in search of potential talents, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang being the most obvious and successful example of previous endeavors.
Blessed with lightning quick pace, unbelievable skill on the ball and a fantastic strike, Dembele looks the complete package in terms of attacking talent. He certainly has the tools to add to what is already a frightening Dortmund attack. In fact, he may have pushed another player who made this list, young American Christian Pulisic, further down the pecking order, as Dembele earned himself a start in Dortmund’s opening day 2-1 win against Mainz 05 in which he looked very impressive. He will most often be employed on the right of attacking midfield, however he can play across the breadth of the attacking third and I think it will not be uncommon for him to drift quite often. 2016/17 may well be the season that many look back and say, ‘I remember the first time I watched that kid, and now he’s a star’. This season certainly feels like it could be a breakout one for Dembele, as he was called into the France squad by Didier Deschamps for the matches against Italy and Belarus.
Felix Passlack // Borussia Dortmund // 18 // Right Back
Dortmund are renowned for their exciting attacking play, but I wanted to give a spot on this list to a player who looks set for a regular contribution on the right of Thomas Tuchel’s defense, Felix Passlack. The young German has been at Dortmund for four years now and he actually found his way to the first team having absolutely lit BVB’s U19 squad ablaze. There he had been employed in a right wing role and registered 21 goals AND 21 assists across all competitions in just 31 matches. This output obviously caught the eye of management, who gave Passlack 3 Bundesliga appearances at just 17 years old.
Passlack is certainly a more attack-minded right back but the system that Dortmund employ often encourages the full backs to get involved in the attack. Felix will need no invitation as his previous attacking experience at youth levels speaks for itself. His future may not necessarily be in attack with the bevy of options at BVB’s disposal, but the exciting, young German certainly has Thomas Tuchel’s attention and I think you can expect to see plenty of him this season.
Breel Embolo // Schalke // 19 // Striker
Another foreign player brought into the Bundesliga, Swiss international Breel Embolo has been on several teams’ shortlist for some time. Having made his debut with Basel in Switzerland at just 17 and following that up with a debut with the Swiss National Team at 18, Embolo looks set to explode at 19. Basel were able to stave off the suitors for just long enough to achieve 3 league titles in a row while Embolo was at the club, and they finally succumbed to Schalke’s bid this summer.
Embolo played most often at center forward while he was at Basel but also drifted out to the right wing quite often. His return of 13 goals and 9 assists across 40 appearances in all competitions gives Schalke another potent option in an attack that is certainly not short of them. The loss of Leroy Sane is going to sting, but the Northern German club has more than lessened the force of the blow with some very exciting attacking options. Breel Embolo is going to be a large part of that excitement.
Oliver Burke // RB Leipzig // 19 // Right Winger
We are going to continue the foreign player theme for now, next with a nationality that has not often been represented in the Bundesliga. The young Kirkcaldy-born Scot Oliver Burke had spent his entire youth career at Nottingham Forest. He made his debut in 2014 but 2015-16 was when he established himself as part of the first-team setup at Forest. His 21 appearances only yielded 2 goals, but Burke had demonstrated his worth and would get his shot in 16/17. As the season started, not many people expected Burke to get going like he did. 5 games into the EFL Championship season, he had 4 goals and an assist. It is as if a switch had flipped and Burke had transformed into the player Forest believed he could be. This did not go unnoticed as RB Leipzig, newcomers to the Bundesliga, snapped up the in-form winger.
There is not another player on this list who is coming into the Bundesliga season with a goal-scoring record like Oliver Burke. That is what makes this move fascinating to watch. At the pace he started the season, Burke will light the league on fire. The question for him now is can he make the transition from a lower tier to a higher level and can he assert his place in this RB Leipzig team, which, despite all the controversy, has been well-assembled over the past few seasons? If he does, it could open up opportunities in the league to players from the Isles.
Christian Pulisic // Borussia Dortmund // 17 // Attacking Midfielder
Another Dortmund player makes the list, as they seem to be absolutely bursting with young talent at the moment. A native of Hershey, Pennsylvania, Pulisic burst on the scene in the second half of the 15/16 Bundesliga season as Thomas Tuchel looked to integrate him into the first-team. His inclusion did not feel out of place, with the young American impressing with his touch and passing in his nine league appearances with the senior squad. His two goals were enough to give everyone a taste of what he could do given a full run-out amongst the scintillating Dortmund attack.
This season is going to feel like two separate seasons to Christian Pulisic. On the one hand, he will be expected to contribute to Dortmund a fair bit more than last season but he certainly will not be expected to do the heavy lifting in terms of goal scoring. On the other hand, his nation, the United States, is about to boil over. They can barely contain themselves from crowning Pulisic as the “Savior of American Soccer” and this dichotomy of expectation could lead to some vexing performances from the youngster. He has the ability to provide Dortmund with a real option in attack; he will just need to shut out everything else.
Max Christiansen // Ingolstadt // 19 // Central Midfielder
The journey of Max Christiansen to the Bundesliga is one that is helpful in restoring faith in the system currently used by most countries to develop young players. Having risen through the youth ranks at Holstein Kiel, he made a move to Hansa Rostock, whose senior squad is currently plying its trade in the 3. Liga. He played his way into the first team there and made his debut for Hansa at only 16 years old. Utilized in a defensive midfield role to start, he eventually began playing slightly more advanced in holding midfield. His performances earned him a move to up-and-coming Ingolstadt and he scored on the last day of the 2. Bundesliga season against Kaiserslautern having again proven himself in the youth ranks of the club. Last year, he was not an everyday player for the Bavarian club, but his 19 appearances showed that he was firmly established. This summer, he represented Germany at the Olympics in Rio, making 2 appearances and showing that he will get chances with Die Mannschaft as well.
Christiansen’s stock is clearly rising and although he has started this season with Ingolstadt’s reserves, it is clear he will be back amongst the senior squad soon. His ability on the ball and composure in midfield give Ingolstadt the rhythm and control that they require if they are to continue the momentum they created last year by finishing mid-table. Max Christiansen’s journey will prove important to Ingolstadt and may continue further up the ladder in the coming years.
Nico Elvedi // Borussia Monchengladbach // 19 // Centre-Back
I know what you are thinking. ‘Finally! A defender!’ I’ll admit, I’ve neglected the less-appreciated side of the ball in this list. However, it takes a special defender to make a list full of pacy, goal scoring forwards and Nico Elvedi is special. Another Swiss player having an impact in Germany, Elvedi joined Borussia Mönchengladbach last season and despite being just 18 made an immediate impact on the senior squad. He made 21 league appearances in that debut season and looked like a player far beyond his years. This filled an immediate need for Gladbach and Elvedi’s performances contributed to the team finishing fourth in the Bundesliga and qualifying for the Champions’ League Playoff Round.
Elvedi is one of the new breed of central defenders. He can defend well and does his job, but he is also capable of dribbling the ball, maintaining possession, and distributing the ball from defense into midfield. Elvedi even pushes forward enough to contribute to the attack at times, providing two assists. His play should be reminiscent of Joel Matip, the former Schalke man now at Liverpool. Expect Nico Elvedi to blossom into a top central defender this season.
Nadiem Amiri // Hoffenheim // 19 // Attacking Midfielder
Nadiem Amiri is a player I really want to see succeed if I can editorialize a bit more than normal here. Amiri was born in Germany to Afghan parents who had left in search of a better life. Having started his playing career in the youth ranks of Wahldof Mannheim, he was noticed by Hoffenheim’s system and was brought in as a 15 year-old to take a chance to impress. He did not disappoint and was brought into the senior team in the second half of the 14/15 season. He played bits and pieces of 7 games in the Bundesliga that season, without a goal or assist. Last season, he got 25 league appearances. His four goals and four assists proved that his ability in attack was of the required quality to push on and perhaps take on an even bigger role.
Amiri is the type of attacking midfielder that you would expect Germany to produce now. He is skillful on the ball, has a good passing range, presses well, works hard when asked, and can take a fantastic set piece. He showed last season with some of his skill that he can have a real impact on the Bundesliga and Hoffenheim will be hoping he does this season to keep them out of trouble.
Josip Brekalo // Wolfsburg // 18 // Attacking Midfielder
To emphasize the changing nature of youth in the Bundesliga, I will end with Josip Brekalo, a recent arrival at Wolfsburg from Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia. The young Croatian had come through Dinamo’s youth ranks, as most of their players do, and had just about established himself in the first team prior to being plucked by Wolfsburg. Even more interesting is the fact that he actually only had one senior goal with Dinamo, a goal in the Croatian Cup semifinals against Hajduk Split. He has, however, scored quite a few goals at the youth levels of both Dinamo and the Croatian Youth National Teams. 15 goals for Croatia at youth levels has driven much of Wolfsburg’s interest in the end.
Brekalo was really still climbing through the ranks at Dinamo Zagreb when he was picked from the vine, so it is safe to say that he is an unpolished product. However, his performance with the national team shows that he can produce, and his ability in dribbling, passing and shooting do suggest that he will be a fantastic player in the near future. Despite the fact he may play a bit part for Wolfsburg this season, he will most definitely receive chances to impress in 16/17.
Read all our Talent Radar 2016-17 Young Players to Watch across all leagues, here.