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The inside story of Florian Wirtz: Bayer Leverkusen’s teenage sensation

Florian Wirtz could become Germany’s youngest player since the 1950s. FTF spoke to former FC Köln and current Bayer Leverkusen coach, Markus Daun.

At 17 years of age Florian Wirtz is already a record-breaker. The scorer of the 2nd youngest Bundesliga goal. The youngest debutant in Germany’s U21 side. And the first 17 year old to score five goals in the Bundesliga.

He will not have the distinction of Germany’s youngest ever player, but the way he is going, Wirtz could be the national team’s youngest debutant since the 1950s.

That alone should be enough to convince you Florian Wirtz is an extraordinary talent.

Then you watch him play and you understand those records have all come on the basis of merit.

The 17 year old is special. The kind of special that makes you go: ‘oh this boy is good.’

He’s really good.

At 17 he runs the show for Bayer Leverkusen like a veteran architect. He weaves through opponents like he’s a seasoned pro who has been doing it in the professional game for decades.

The only question marks raised about him so far is over the limit of his potential.

It is a question Markus Daun his former coach at 1. FC Köln has been asking himself since he first spotted the boy at 12 years old.

The birth of a star

In the early 2000s, German football entered a deep cavernous hole. The nation had been embarrassed by their EURO 2000 outing having finished bottom of their group against England, Romania and Portugal.

The German Football Association (DFB) had to change. They travelled across the world to develop an extensive revamp and rejuvenate Germany’s youth football strategy.

Based on their discoveries, they re-shaped every football structure in Germany from top to bottom.

Almost two decades later, the nation is one of the leading elites when it comes to academy football having reached the pinnacle of their vision at the 2014 World Cup.

Florian Wirtz would have been just 11 years old at the time. But he is among an emerging crop of extremely young teenagers leading the mantle for a new burgeoning golden generation. Such as Jamal Musiala, Jan Thielmann and Youssoufa Moukoko inspired by the 2014 World Cup winners.

Wirtz has been playing football since the age of six. First at local club where his father resided as president, and then at 1. FC Köln.

It is here where Markus Daun, a former professional player and academy coach encountered the young man.

‘I first saw him play when he was 12 or 13,’ Markus recalls to FTF. ‘His incredible talent was immediately visible.’

‘Then I became his coach at the U17 team.

When he first joined the team he was just 14.

I remember we played a friendly against the South Korean national team. I brought him on for the last twenty minutes. The game was already 6-1 in favour of South Korea.

Maybe it was unfair of me to bring him on but it was a good opportunity for him. I told him to play it simple.

In the end, I was very disappointed with the way the team played, but his performance in the last twenty minutes put a smile on my face. He played very bravely and was able to adapt to the game quickly.’

Ahead of his years

That was the first inclination of many for Markus that Florian was no ordinary talent. This was a player who was capable and ready to perform at levels above his peers. At 14 he already had the capacity to impact a game against players two or three years his senior.

There were other moments too.

‘Two moments stand out for me in particular,’ Markus recalls.

‘The first was the final of the German U17 Championship two years ago, between Cologne and Borussia Dortmund in Dortmund. Cologne won the game and he (Florian) became the youngest player to become a German champion at that level.’

Wirtz registered an assist in a 3-2 victory over the Black and Yellows in an enthralling tie where Youssoufa Moukoko was also on the scoresheet.

‘The other match was after switching to Bayer Leverkusen. They also played against Borussia Dortmund. He entered the field as a substitute, for the U19 team.

At the time, Leverkusen had problems in the league. They weren’t in good shape, but when he took the field, they became a completely different team.’

The game Markus refers to was an U19 fixture where Dortmund were 2-0 up at half time. Wirtz’s showed his brilliance in the second, registering an assist and finding the back of the net to claw back the deficit.

‘From that moment I knew Florian was prepared for the next step. It is important to mention that at that time he did not even know any of his teammates, he was completely new to the team and still he was immediately able to captivate his teammates,’ Markus reminisces.

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A big step

By late 2019, Florian Wirtz was among Germany’s most coveted players. A loophole in his contract practically made him a free-agent by the end of the summer and there were a lot of clubs sniffing around for the super-talent.

Markus Daun who is a former Bayer Leverkusen youth graduate remembers the time well.

‘We talked about this (moving clubs) often, I knew there was interest in him from Bayer Leverkusen, but of course there were other clubs interested too. I was still at FC 1 Köln at the time, so it was in my interest for him to stay there,’ Markus says.

‘But of course I told him honestly about my past with Bayer Leverkusen, and how they are an absolute top team based on my experience. With very prepared, excellent people like Rudi Völler and Simon Rolfes, whom I know personally, so I could only say positive things about the club.

Although at the time it was in my interest for Florian to stay. I was convinced and I told him that Bayer Leverkusen is definitely a team where he, with his style of play, can fit in well.’

In the end Florian heeded the advice of those around him and made the switch to Leverkusen which has paid dividends so far.

Having made tentative steps into the first team, upon the departure of Kai Havertz, the 17 year old took on the number ten role from his predecessor and has made it his own.

To date he already has 8 goals and 7 assists in just 39 matches for Bayer Leverkusen. It is a remarkable feat and one that exceeds many of Germany’s greatest players at the same age.

The anatomy of Wirtz’s talent

An archetypal number ten who can be deployed as a winger, Florian Wirtz possess a unique skillset that puts him above his peers.

‘He has an incredibly clean technique,’ Markus says. ‘Everything he does is tooth and nail. He controls the ball perfectly without having to watch the ball. In addition, he can process the game quicker and evaluate situations on the go. He can anticipate the next 2-3 steps before they even happen.’

On top of his technique Florian Wirtz is an industrious player too. He is tenacious and will often chase down the ball against his opponents in order to win back possession.

‘He has incredibly good athletic ability, extreme endurance and good fitness. I think that’s the basis of his ability and one of his strengths. One he performs week in week out.

This was the case at a younger age. In terms of his athleticism he was already a professional even back with me. He never wanted to lose a single match in training either. He always wanted to continue training when I said the workout was over, he still wanted to continue. You could not stop him.’

The work ethic must derive in some way from a football crazed family. Florian Wirtz’s elder sister Juliane Wirtz also plies her trade with Bayer Leverkusen women’s team. His father too was a player himself in the lower leagues of German football.

The sport is ingrained in the Wirtz family.

On top of his love for the game he has the brain and the understanding too which sets him apart.

At 17, he can carve open defences comparable to some of the best players in the world in his position. For smart passes made per 90, Florian Wirtz already ranks in the top five according to Wyscout, alongside stars like Thomas Muller, Dani Olmo and Jadon Sancho in the Bundesliga.

And he will only improve with maturity.

Still learning his trade

That is the frightening prospect when it comes to Florian Wirtz. He is far from a finished product. There are areas in his game where he still comes up short. Yet already he is able to stand out in the professional game.

Even Markus Daun has been somewhat surprised by his former protege’s rapid burst to the top.

‘I had my doubts when he played on my U17 team. There were stages in his style of play when his game was very childish when he played “kids soccer”.’

But the surprise has merely been at the pace of Wirtz’s rise. The talent and the natural gifts Florian Wirtz has been blessed him are rare and unique.

‘For me his abilities were so compelling I knew that if his coach worked with him the right way, he could overcome his weaknesses fairly quickly.

‘Based on his talent, you could tell he had it in him to “grow up” and be ready to play in the adult team. It’s also because of his work ethic. He worked very hard to reach and maintain the level he is playing at.’

Markus speaks of Florian with a passionate inflection as he continues.

‘This boy wanted only one thing in his whole life: to be a professional football player. Football is his life. It was a great experience to watch him work in training and see how he wanted to improve day by day.

We spoke a lot about certain things, we also quarrelled, but we both wanted to achieve the same goal. In the end, we always agreed that he was going to be a professional football player. Both of us, but especially he, did everything to achieve that.’

The future is bright

Six months after Florian Wirtz moved to Bayer Leverkusen, Markus Daun followed him to his former club.

Markus now works in Bayer Leverkusen’s academy. Back where it all started for him. The added bonus is that he also gets to watch Florian’s metamorphosis firsthand at the club’s facilities.

‘We keep in touch, I am in a good relationship with his family as well. We talk a lot, he always considers my advice. Sometimes we meet, we run into each other in Leverkusen, which we are both very happy about. Unfortunately, we cannot greet each other in the usual way. We used to be able to hug each other, which we can’t do now because of the virus regulations.

But whenever we meet, we take time for a short conversation or, if possible, for a longer one. We also often message each other, we always know how the other feels.’

When Markus reflects on the future, he is optimistic about his former protege, but also cautious. After all Florian Wirtz might be a record breaker, but there are still many things he needs to achieve to reach the upper echelons of the football hierarchy.

‘There are still mistakes in his game. There are times he keeps the ball for too long, and he still needs to work on that.

He also needs to work on his physique to be even more athletic. If he does that, I think we will see him in the national team soon. If he continues to work hard there will be no limits for him. He will be a player who plays Champions League matches regularly. And he will represent Germany internationally, I am convinced.

But he can never be satisfied with himself, he always has to set new goals. And he should always be able to learn new things.’

One of Markus’ premonitions has already come true. Florian Wirtz will be part of Germany’s senior squad in their first three 2022 World Cup Qualifying matches for Qatar.

If he makes an appearance, he will become the youngest to do so for over 50 years.

What the future holds after that, only time will tell. With a talent like him, as Markus has hinted, the sky is the limit.

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