Five to Watch in the Bundesliga

Even though it feels like last season just ended – because it did – a new Bundesliga season is already underway. Without the blinding lights emitted by stars like Timo Werner, Kai Havertz or Philippe Coutinho to draw attention to the league, I’ve been tasked with identifying five interesting Bundesliga players to watch this season. Of course, there are obvious ones and by all means you should tune-in and enjoy Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland and the best striker in world football Robert Lewandowski do their thing. But, aside from one very obvious inclusion, I’ve opted for a few, slightly, under-the-radar players that are worth keeping your eye on over the next eight months or so. 

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Leroy Sane returns to the Bundesliga after a four-year absence, having traded the royal blue of Schalke for the sky blue of Manchester City back in 2016. Sane departed Germany a technically gifted, blisteringly fast 20-year-old with the world at his feet and returns a two-time Premier League champion with 23 Germany caps to his name – a fully-formed, elite footballer. The fact that Bayern have signed Sane for a mere £7m more than City initially paid for him makes the deal one of the bargains of the summer despite the £45m upfront fee. 

Although he missed the entirety of last season with a ruptured cruciate ligament, Sane, as expected, has already hit the ground running in Bavaria. Bagging his first goal and providing two assists in the 8-0 opening day demolition of his former side Schalke 04. Filling Ivan Perisic’s spot in the Bayern squad, Sane – who played his first game on the right wing with Gnabry switched to the left – represents a significant upgrade for the European Champions. Bayern will remain the same imperious, well-oiled machine we’ve come to expect in the season ahead. But the addition of Sane to a frontline consisting of Serge Gnabry, Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski, makes the reigning Bundesliga champs appointment viewing.

Now we’re talking, from the Bundesliga penthouse with Bayern to its basement with newly promoted VfB Stuttgart, enter 20-year-old Silas Wamangituka. In three short years, the Congolese striker/winger/wingback hybrid has moved from his native land, through the French third and second divisions, on to the 2. Bundesliga and now finds himself In the German top-flight. Calling someone a striker/winger/wingback hybrid may seem like a bit of a stretch but in Wamangituka’s case, it’s accurate.

In his 2018/19 season with Paris FC in Ligue 2, he played exclusively as a CF and racked up 11 goals at an impressive rate of 0.45 per 90, on the back of just 42 total shots. His reimagining as a wide player came shortly into his inaugural season at Stuttgart. After an initial run of four games leading the line without scoring, the then Stuttgart head coach Tim Walter began playing the fleet-footed forward out on the wing. And I don’t just mean on one wing, Wamangituka has since been deployed at LW, LWB, RW and RWB at various points in his short Stuttgart career to date.

The logic behind the move was pretty simple; Wamangituka is an excellent dribbler and a hardworking, willing runner. Last season he attempted 8.38 dribbles per 90, the most of any player in the 2. Bundesliga with over 1500 minutes to their name and his success rate of 45.7% ranked him 8th among players who attempted more than 5.00 dribbles per 90. For context, only two top-flight Bundesliga players attempted more dribbles than that last season and fan-favourites such as Serge Gnabry and Jadon Sancho only succeeded in 49.4% and 41.1% of their attempts, respectively.

The thing that separates the Stuttgart winger from many of his peers (aside from his versatility), however, is his directness. When Wamangituka picks up the ball, he drives at goal with real purpose and he’s rapid to boot. His roots as a striker have resulted in him playing more like an inside-forward than an out and out wide-man and you’re more likely to see him cut-inside and head for goal than hugging the touchline. His desire to find the back of the net – something which he managed to do on six occasions last season – does occasionally result in low percentage shot attempts but overall his decision making is stellar, reflected in his 80% pass completion rate. His tally of five assists last season also suggests that he’s growing into a willing provider as he becomes more accustomed to his new position.

Stuttgart will be a “small” fish in a big pond this season but I think Wamangituka will flourish regardless. His skill, endeavour and athleticism should see him continue to excel at the elite level. And the fact that he opened his Bundesliga account on matchday 1 against SC Freiburg – beating his marker with his first step to pounce on a loose ball before slotting home – will no doubt leave him full of confidence for the season ahead. 

The departure of Kai Havertz, while expected, has inevitably left a void in midfield at the BayArena. In typically German fashion though, when one wonderkid leaves another is ready to step up. Florian Wirtz made his Leverkusen debut last season at the tender age of 17 years and 15 days old, making him the youngest player ever fielded by the club – a record previously held by Havertz. Although young, the midfield playmaker has been on the radar of Bundesliga aficionados for quite some time. Coming to light initially as the jewel in the crown of the 1. FC Köln academy before a controversial switch to Leverkusen in January.

Wirtz will likely replace Havertz’s name on the Leverkusen team sheet this campaign but he isn’t a like-for-like replacement for the £72m superstar. While Havertz operated centrally as either a 10 or false-9, Wirtz does his work on the right inside-channel and will likely be deployed as the right-sided central midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 system. Though he is capable of playing anywhere across the midfield, such is his ability.

Technically sound, Wirtz is comfortable on both feet and illustrated that fact with his first Bundesliga goal back in June. Picking the ball up in the box, feinting with his right-foot, away from Bayern Munich’s Lucas Hernandez and bending the ball home with his left, passed a fully extended Manuel Neuer. A goal that made him the youngest scorer in Bundesliga history. He’s an intelligent, aware footballer too, exemplified by his 83.77% pass completion rate, high for someone attempting 0.48 key passes per 90. Numbers comparable with the likes of Paul Pogba (83.68% and 0.50) and Roberto Firmino (83.54% and 0.49), for context. Granted, Wirtz’s sample size is significantly smaller but the early signs are promising. 

The step up to men’s football at the top-level won’t be an easy one for Wirtz of course and he will need time to truly find his feet. It’s worth remembering that Havertz didn’t really get going until his third full season in Leverkusen. If Wirtz can begin to replicate the form that got him promoted to the senior team in the first place, however, (scoring twice and assisting three times in his four u19 appearances for his new club), it won’t be long before “King Kai” is old news.

Konrad Laimer is injured for the first month of the season and he isn’t one of RB Leipzig’s many attacking talents, but hear me out. Every great attacking side needs someone to hold things together in the middle of the park, a guy willing to do the dirty work for others, a guy who will run and press and chase when the rest of the team are out on their feet; Konrad Laimer is that guy.

The 23-year-old is entering his fourth Bundesliga season in Leipzig after moving across the border from sister club RB Salzburg in 2017. Yet, it wasn’t until last season that he finally established himself as a regular under head coach Julian Naglesmann. Initially playing as the slightly more advanced player in a midfield double-pivot, the departure of Diego Demme in January saw him adjust. The tenacious Austrian began to take on the defensive responsibility alongside his traditionally more eye-catching, attacking compatriot, Marcel Sabitzer. And it’s in this role where he truly shines. 

Laimer is the undisputed king of pressing in the Bundesliga, in fact, he’s one of the very best in Europe when it comes to pressing opponents. That is partly down to Leipzig’s highly-refined style of play, of course. Their fluid, high-intensity, press-reliant system is almost tailor-made for someone with Laimer’s skillset. His remarkable tally of 34.5 pressures per 90 last season ranked him 1st in the Bundesliga and he also took the top spot for successful pressures, forcing opponents out of possession at a rate of 11.7 per 90. It’s this all-action, relentless effort that makes him so fun to watch. You’ll rarely see the wiry Austrian slowly trudge back into position or pause for breath. His ability to eat up ground both laterally and horizontally allows him to cover for his teammates and is integral to Leipzig’s system. In short, Laimer provides the platform that allows players like Christopher Nkunku, Dani Olmo and at one time Timo Werner, to flourish. 

The above may give off some N’Golo Kante or Wilfred Ndidi vibes, but unlike those two, Laimer also offers a lot on the offensive end. Conveniently, for someone who loves to pressure opponents, he’s better than most when under pressure himself. This allows him to provide a reliable outlet for Leipzig’s defenders as they attempt to progress the ball vertically. He isn’t afraid to break from midfield either, often taking up positions on the inside-right channel when Leipzig are in possession or hitting on the counter.

More often than not though, you’ll find him sitting slightly deeper than his more offensive teammates, permitting them to recycle possession through him if needed. It is from these sorts of areas that Laimer bagged four goals last season and provided six assists (fifth among Leipzig’s squad) in all competitions. Laimer has been a favourite among football analytic’s twitter elite for a while now but there’s still time to buy some stock in him before he hits the mainstream this season.

Last up we have a name familiar to Scottish football fans, well, a surname anyway. Borussia Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna, the son of one-time Rangers hero Claudio. New York native, Gio, followed in his father’s footsteps by moving from the US to Germany in 2019 – having progressed through the City Group powered NYCFC academy in his early teens. At only 17-years-old, Reyna made 17 appearances for Dortmund in all competitions last season and although most of those showings came off the bench, he will have a much bigger part to play in the coming campaign.

The American often found himself replacing Thorgan Hazard last season which meant playing on the left wing of Dortmund’s attack, at least on paper. In practice, Reyna is a free-roaming creative, attacking midfielder who likes to operate in half-spaces, finding room to work wherever he can get it. He receives the ball very well in those tight areas and seems to be one of those footballers with an uncanny ability to be one step ahead of everyone else on the pitch. His first touch often takes him away from his marker or into space in a Thiago Alcantara-esq fashion. You need look no further than his assists against PSG and RB Leipzig last season for examples of this.

The youngster has a unique hunger and confidence about him as well, he is anything but passive on the field. Constantly moving into dangerous areas, almost subliminally demanding the ball while doing so. When the ball inevitably finds its way to Reyna in deeper positions, he invariably looks to initiate an attack. Either by passing the ball forward or driving up the pitch himself – something he does very well. His dribbling success of 74.07% was the best by some distance in the Bundesliga among players with over 2.00 progressive runs per 90 in 2019/20.

On the opening day of this season Reyna took the place of the recovering Marco Reus, playing as a 10 behind Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho. Alongside two of the world’s hottest attacking prospect, Reyna not only held his own; he stood out. Scoring his first Bundesliga goal from a Jude Bellingham assist (that’s one 17-year-old setting up another 17-year-old by the way) and winning a penalty which Haaland converted for Dortmund’s second goal of the game. 

When Reus does finally return he will undoubtedly reclaim his spot in Lucien Favre’s line-up but it may not be at the expense of the young American and even if it is, he’ll have more than his fair share of opportunities to shine this season.

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