The 2016-17 installment of the Bundesliga is now well underway, and though it may be early doors, once again the German top flight has shown why it continues to grow in popularity.
Despite giants Bayern Munich expectedly sitting at the summit of the table, the European dogfight ensuing below them from second to ninth is separated by no more than three points. The likes of FC Cologne, RasenBallsport Leipzig, and 1899 Hoffenheim have all impressed in the opening exchanges, while further shocks in the table can be provided by FC Schalke’s single win out of six fixtures, and VfL Wolfsburg’s continued struggles in the post Kevin De Bruyne era. But what is not shocking, is the massive amount of quality the Bundesliga continues to put on offer, a trend that is only likely to continue to grow as the season progresses.
Naturally no one is surprised by the impact of key players such as Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but the amount of players who have stamped their personal signifiers on proceedings in the first two months of the domestic program has been impressive indeed. It is in that light that we take a look at ten Bundesliga players who look set to have influential seasons in Germany.
Joshua Kimmich – Bayern Munich
The meteoric rise of Joshua Kimmich received more than it’s fair share of attention last year. After breaking into the first-team under now Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, Kimmich was included in Joachim Low’s Germany squad for Euro 2016. Though he wasn’t slated to start during the summer tournament, Kimmich won the job at right-back and was an immediate success. Drawing comparisons to German icon Philipp Lahm with his technical ability, pace going forward and ability to deliver quality service into the area, he would end the tournament with the blessing of quite a few as the best young player to feature in France.
Though Guardiola is now gone, new manager Carlo Ancelotti has kept the same faith in the youngster, and it certainly has paid dividends. Through nine appearances in all competitions, Kimmich has found the back of the net on five occasions as well as providing an assist in the process. As his maturation continues, he’s sure to be continuously called upon for the national team and could very well be considered a vital piece of the puzzle in Bavaria as the season progresses.
Gonzalo Castro – Borussia Dortmund
Like rivals Bayern, Borussia Dortmund are hardly lacking in the quality department. Blessed with a large compliment of gifted footballers, Dortmund are expected to yet again play second fiddle in the Bundesliga to their Bavarian overlords. However, the efforts of Gonzalo Castro could very well play a key role in a hopeful turn of events that brings the league back to the Westfalenstadion.
It was certainly a summer of frustration in the Ruhr valley, one that saw Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ilkay Gundogan leave for Bayern, Manchester United and Manchester City respectively. Though manager Thomas Tuchel responded with a recruitment program which saw eight players come in to the club to lighten the blow, it was Castro, already at the club, that has filled the midfield void left by Gundogan. Seven goals and eleven assists through forty-one appearances in all competitions last term was a solid return from the German international, but he had still yet to be a guaranteed first-choice option in the center of midfield under Tuchel.
The vacancy left by Gundogan was the perfect opportunity for him to play his way into routine selection – three goals and six assists in ten appearances thus far this season signals a large spike in his numbers if extrapolated out over the course of the year. Quite simply, he’s been brilliant, and though Julian Weigl stole the headlines last season, this term it’s Castro who seems to be the vital piece.
Timo Horn – FC Köln
One of the surprise packages thus far this season, FC Koln currently sit third in the Bundesliga table and just one point back of second-place Hertha Berlin. While the early goal scoring exploits from French striker Anthony Modeste have stolen the headlines, Koln’s excellent record at the back (only three goals allowed in six Bundesliga fixtures) is a testament to how well the likes of Jonas Hector, Mergim Mavraj, and Frederik Sorensen have gelled as a defensive unit. But despite the back four performing well, goalkeeper Timo Horn has been excellent in goal.
For years Horn has been hotly tipped to be one of the next best and brightest produced at a position where Germany have been head and shoulders above the rest for years. Though Manuel Neuer is, rightfully so, the unquestioned number one option at keeper, Horn has every opportunity to take the guaranteed first-team football he gets at Koln and work his way into the Germany fold on a consistent basis. Despite facing competition from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Kevin Trapp, Loris Karius, Ralf Fahrmann and others, his early form this season has kicked on after strong showings in the 2015-16 season. If Koln are to upset the apple cart and challenge for Europe, he undoubtedly will continue to play a vital role in any success they have this campaign.
Timo Werner – RasenBallsport Leipzig
For a son of Stuttgart, being unable to help his hometown club VfB Stuttgart avoid relegation must surely have stung. Not to be denied the opportunity to shine at the highest level German football has to offer, Werner decided to return to the German top flight and join the RB Leipzig revolution rather than remain at home and help his boyhood club win promotion. If his efforts’ early doors are anything to judge by, he certainly made the right choice.
They may have rubbed quite a few people the wrong way in the German footballing community, but Leipzig have begun their first ever Bundesliga season like a house on fire. Three wins and three draws in their first six outings, including a 1-0 home win against Dortmund, has hushed their detractors, at least early on. Much of their current success can be attributed to their ability to hit their opponents on the counter attack.
Though Werner is just one piece of a puzzle that also includes the likes of Emil Forsberg, Yussuf Poulsen, Marcel Sabitzer, Davie Selke and Oliver Burke, Werner’s three goals and one assist in six Bundesliga outings this campaign has thus far proven that he, despite being just 20 years-old still, is ready to make waves. For the duration of his German youth career, Werner has been absolutely lethal at all levels, and should his club form continue, it surely won’t be long before he cracks into the full German side for the foreseeable future.
Benjamin Henrichs – Bayer Leverkusen
After an impressive showing in last season’s Ruckrunde saw Bayer Leverkusen finish third beyond Bayern and Dortmund, much was expected from Roger Schmidt’s men this season – thus far, they’ve had yet to truly impress until their recent 2-0 home win against Dortmund. With goal scorers Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and new Finnish starlet Joel Pohjanpalo receiving all the plaudits for their combined nine goals (out of a team total of ten) in six fixtures, German youngster Benjamin Henrichs has not only worked his way into the Leverkusen XI, but he’s done so with a string of impressive performances that show immense promise.
Before this turns into a rave fest about another young player, it must be stressed that Henrichs is far from a finished article. While he does display a knowledge of the game past his years and an ability to read the ebb and flow of the match, allowing him to excel at intercepting the opposition’s passing lanes, Henrichs still has plenty of room to improve. His distribution from the back as well as his ability to provide service in the area needs work, while his ball retention can also improve, but naturally much of that can come down to his tender age (nineteen) and is more than likely bound to improve over time as he matures and gains experience. Regardless of that, should he continue to trend upward, Bayer could very well have found their first-choice right-back for the next decade.
Kerem Demirbay – TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Perhaps it’s a bit fitting that a Hoffenheim player, who happens to be young, makes the list. Under 29-year-old manager Julian Nagelsmann, who is in his first full season in charge after taking the reigns midway through last campaign, Hoffenheim have been a bit of a revelation. With a squad whose average age is just twenty-five, the young headmaster of Sinsheim had guided this men to two wins and four draws in the opening exchanges of the 2016-17 Bundesliga season – one player who has contributed greatly to this initial success is Kerem Demirbay.
After an impressive loan spell last season with 2.Bundesliga side Fortuna Dusseldorf where he bagged eleven goals and added a further four assists through all competitions, Demirbay joined the Nagelsmann revolution this past summer and has immediately impacted the side. In a string of influential performances, the German-born Turkish youth international has formed a wonderful central understanding with Lucas Rupp and Nadiem Amiri, and though he’s only been directly involved in two of Hoff’s eleven Bundesliga goals this season, his influence goes far beyond the score sheet.
With Hoffenheim looking to be a real threat to challenge for a top half of the table finish, Demirbay will undoubtedly be central to those efforts for the remainder of the season and beyond.
Thorgan Hazard – Borussia Mönchengladbach
When your last name is Hazard, it’s difficult to look past Belgian star Eden and his exploits around Europe. But his younger brother Thorgan has begun to make waves in Germany and the potential of him reaching the expected level given his own ability as a footballer is exciting to think about.
Despite never getting a chance at Chelsea (much like Kevin De Bruyne), Thorgan spent two years on loan at Belgian side Zulte Waregem and received raved reviews. A loan spell to current employers Gladbach followed, and the club were prompted to bring him in on a full deal two summers ago. While the level of his performances were decent, they showed promise, and his influence thus far this season looks set to repay the faith that has been placed in him since his move to Borussia Park.
All told, Hazard has netted on seven occasions and added three assists in just eleven appearances this season. Though Gladbach have struggled out of the gate this season with inconsistent performances, Hazard has begun to find his feet in the Bundesliga, prompting many to peg him for a real breakout season akin to his time in Belgium. Naturally the standard is higher in the German top flight, but at the moment he’s risen to the challenge and passed the test – look for him to continue his good form throughout the season.
Konstantinos Stafylidis – FC Augsburg
They may be lacking a real goal threat, but Augsburg have made a bit of a name for themselves with their ability to defend well both individually and as a unit. Under now Schalke manager Markus Weinzierl, their defensive solidarity saw them progress through the Europa League group stage and into the knockout stage, while the previous season saw them finish a remarkable fifth in the Bundesliga. Under current boss Dirk Schuster, Augsburg have kept their defensive identity – one player who is not only shining on the defensive side of the ball, but also further forward, is Greek international left-back Kostas Stafylidis.
While Greek players have certainly been known for their defensive qualities in recent years (Euro 2004, anyone?), Stafylidis is one of a handful of Hellenic players who have moved forward in football and added better technical ability as well as an increased effectiveness in the final third. Though he’s a left-back by trade, his rifle of a shot from range, quality with the ball at his feet and intelligence on both sides of the ball currently see him as arguably the best in his position in the Bundesliga on current form. With Augsburg likely to struggle to break into the top half of the table, it’s likely that the 22-year-old is auditioning for a move to a bigger club in the near future.
Serge Gnabry – SV Werder Bremen
Another German youngster added to the long procession of the next crop to come off the pipeline, Serge Gnabry is now seemingly in the right place at the right time. After being poached from VfB Stuttgart’s youth system by Premier League side Arsenal, Gnabry found life in North London difficult after staring in the youth ranks. After suffering a serious injury, a wasteful loan move to West Brom followed, and despite his magnificent display this past summer in the Rio Olympics, the Gunners sold him on to Werder Bremen.
Early doors and back in Germany once again, Gnabry has put on five excellent Bundesliga displays, showing why, despite the little football he received in England, he was still thought of highly enough to be selected for the German youth set-up. His two goals and one assists thus far have given Bremen that little extra bit of pace and directness that they so often have lacked recently. While he cannot stem the tide at the back and fix their defensive struggles, his ability to get forward, even at the age of twenty-one, should see the German U21 starlet’s stock continue to rise. With rumors abound of Bayern’s interest in the player, and the uncertainty surrounding Bremen’s status in the Bundesliga, Gnabry is another player who could very well be auditioning for bigger and better things down the road.
Vincenzo Grifo – SC Freiburg
Many, if not most of you, will not have heard much about Vincenzo Grifo until this season… or even not at all still. After staring in Freiburg’s run to the 2.Bundesliga championship to the tune of fourteen goals and fifteen assists in just thirty-two appearances, the German-born Italian youth international has carried his form to the Bundesliga thus far this season.
Grifo’s tactical flexibility has proven a major asset to manager Christian Streich, but his primary deployment on the left side of the Freiburg attack continues to be where he shines brightest. Though his goals/match rate has dropped now that he is testing himself against the best the Bundesliga has on offer, Grifo’s ability to create has proven vital – his one goal and four assists thus far this campaign has helped the Brazilians of Breisgau to three wins in their opening six jousts thus far.
While there have been a fair few to tip Freiburg for the drop come the completion of the current campaign, early signs point to Streitch’s troops being a bit more difficult to negotiate than some promoted sides in years past. They certainly may not be blessed with an abundance of ability, but football has shown us on so many occasions that all it takes is a few players of real quality to help a side avoid relegation, and Grifo certainly seems to be just that for his current employers.