Alex Lynch provides a detailed scout report about Niklas Stark, Hertha’s young defensive midfield stalwart.
When you think German football, the flashy attacking play of the Bundesliga and the top class German attackers come to mind. Names like Muller, Reus and Ozil are usually talked about before the world class defenders from Germany like Hummels and Boateng. But this isn’t only the case with the top German stars now, as this is also the case when the top German prospects get talked about. Sane, Brandt, Werner and Gnabry are usually talked about before the likes of Sule, Tah and Hertha Berlin’s Niklas Stark. But, this shouldn’t be the case, because the young defensive players from Germany are some of the best prospects in the world, and the latest defensive minded player making a name for himself is Stark.
Who is Niklas Stark?
Stark was born in 1995 in the country he represents, Germany. He joined the Nuremberg academy back in 2004 and that was the first major club he played for. After joining Nuremberg, the now 21-year-old quickly rose through the ranks with the club, and he made his Bundesliga debut in April of 2013 shortly after turning 18. By the time Stark got to this level, he was already an under-18 international for Germany and he was known by those who follow the youth ranks in German football. He would appear two more times for Nuremberg in that Bundesliga season, before he began to get consistent playing time in 2013-14. He started 15 games and made 6 appearances off the bench, as Stark showed what he could do at times during the season. He made 2.5 tackles and 1.4 interceptions per game with 1.FCN, along with 2.7 clearances per game. Even though his club got relegated, the then 19-year-old showed flashes of his physicality in the midfield.
Since Stark was very young, he opted to stay with the club that gave him a chance to play in Nuremberg even though they had been relegated. In the 2. Bundesliga, Stark made 26 appearances while still playing for Germany at the under-19 level. He was consistently in the first team during the season, and his play began to get noticed by the Bundesliga clubs once again. After playing 4 more 2.Bundesliga games in 2015-16, he moved back to the Bundesliga to play for Hertha Berlin.
Even though Stark had been loyal to his first club, moving to a team like Berlin who fit his style of play has proven to be a very wise decision. He played well in his 27 starts, as he scored 1 goal, won two aerial duels and averaged three clearances per game while passing at an 85% clip. While last season was promising, this season has been the one where Stark has made himself into an undroppable player for Dardai’s team. He’s started a majority of Hertha’s games and shown fans why he’s played for Germany at every level in the youth ranks.
What is his Style of Play?
Stark’s style of play is that of a pure defensive midfielder. He’s not going to be heavily involved in the attack, as most of his work occurs when the opposition has possession. The German likes to tackle and block shots, which can lead to fouls and yellow card accumulation during a long season. He’s very tall with his 6’2 frame, and Stark is good in the air as shown by occasionally getting his head on a corner. But when Stark is deployed at centre-back, he’s less dynamic and more of a man who stays in his position. With the defensive tactics of Hertha, Stark is more often deployed in the midfield, where he thrives.
What are his Strengths?
What has led Stark to becoming a first team defensive midfielder for Hertha are his main strengths as a player. His tackling is one of his best attributes, as Stark averages over 2.5 per game for Berlin and he had 4 in the gritty 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich. In that game, Stark was one of the best players on the pitch and he made crucial tackles for Hertha, which led to their defensive masterclass for most of the game. The main reason why Stark is an effective tackler is that he does it without fouling, as he only averages 1.5 fouls per game. This is why he only picked up 6 yellow cards this season, despite the high amount of tackles that he attempts and the attacking football in the Bundesliga. Besides his tackling, he is also good in the air, which led to 6 successful aerial duels against Freiburg. Stark averages 2 aerial duels won per game, even though as a defensive midfielder he doesn’t get a lot of chances. His height helps him thrive in the air, and his aerial ability is why he is occasionally deployed at centre back.
Niklas Stark in action against Hoffenheim at Olympiastadion on March 31, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Another one of his strengths is his passing as Stark has improved in this area of his game with Berlin. This season, he’s up to 84% passing with three long balls per game and 47 passes per game. Stark registered a passing percentage of over 90% against Gladbach and Augsburg, and for a Hertha team that can’t afford to gift the opposition opportunities, Stark’s passing ability is very important. Even though Hertha usually do not dominate possession, Stark passes a lot for them as shown by his 52 passes attempted in the recent game against Augsburg. Even though a lot of Stark’s passes aren’t significant ones, his ability on the ball makes him a reliable presence in the midfield, and someone who can assist in the passing game in addition to his defensive contribution.
What are his Weaknesses?
One of Stark’s main weaknesses is that he doesn’t contribute a lot to the attacking side of the pitch. The 0.1 key passes per game that Stark averaged this season displays how little he contributed to the attack. Even though he’s a good passer, his passes are mostly for retaining possession. If he wants to become a complete defensive midfielder, he needs to look to provide assists and create chances. If Stark ends up being primarily a centre back, being better on the ball would still be important.
Besides his lack of key passes, Stark also doesn’t dribble past people, which is displayed by his 0.1 dribbles per game. At midfield or centre back, being able to dribble past the opposition can be instrumental to building up to a goal or helping establish control over a game. With Stark’s lack of dribbling ability, he might be more suited for a defensive team like Hertha rather than some of Germany’s bigger sides.
Even though Stark isn’t as well known as other young German midfielders including Goretzka, Kimmich or Dahoud, he is still a good young player. With valuable Bundesliga experience being gained this season, and since he’s only 22-years-old, Stark has a lot of potential. With his frame and defensive ability, he contributes in areas that are valuable for any side, and has helped Berlin qualify for the Europa League for next season. With the ability that German clubs have shown in developing young players, Stark is certainly one to watch in the next few seasons.
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Alex Lynch is an avid Arsenal supporter for many years and is interested in football culture and tactics from across the world. His main focus is on the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga.
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