Whilst cheap beer, electric atmospheres, and attacking football are what make the Bundesliga such an exciting spectacle, it is the ability to nurture talent which gives the German topflight the reputation as the biggest hotbed for young stars.
The balance between development and expectations are perfectly poised at many German clubs where young players are provided high level competition and the minutes required to grow.
With U23 players earning more first team opportunities in the Bundesliga than in any of the other top 4 leagues, it is no surprise that we have seen the likes of Jadon Sancho, and Jude Bellingham launch their careers in Germany, whilst homegrown talents such as Kai Havertz and Florian Wirtz are products of the nation’s phenomenal academy system.
To delve deeper into the young stars making waves in Germany, First Time Finish has collaborated with Adam Khan to bring you the first of a two-part series analyzing Every Bundesliga Clubs Most Exciting Talent Under 23.
Enjoy Adam Khan’s Bundesliga content? Then make sure to subscribe to his free German Football newsletter!
FC Bayern: Alphonso Davies
Born November 2, 2000
Though he joined FC Bayern as a dynamic winger, it has been the decision to deploy Alphonso Davies at left-back which has seen the former MLS star blossom into one of the most revered young talents in world football.
More than 50 Bundesliga starts before his 21st birthday is a clear sign of his quality. But Davies’ starring role in Bayern’s Champions League triumph, and his subsequent selection for the UEFA Team of the Year, were the crowning achievement of an outlandish 2020 campaign.
Now, under the leadership of Julian Nagelsmann, Alphonso Davies is beginning to take the next steps in his game. The opinion that the Bayern fullback is just raw pace and power is being put to the test as the Canadian youngster is coming on leaps and bounds in terms of his ability in possession and defensive awareness.
Whilst his roadrunner acceleration can still get him out of tricky situations, Davies is turning over possession on fewer occasions. He also is contributing more effectively in the final third.
A quick look at the stats back up this claim. Davies leads the Bundesliga in players dribbled past, tackles won, and of course, the top speed (36,08 km/h).
The sky is the limit for young ‘Phonzie’. Though he has stark competition from the likes of Dayot Upamecano (22), and Jamal Musiala (18), the Canadian roadrunner is our one to watch at Der Rekordmeister!
Borussia Dortmund: Erling Haaland
Born July 21, 2000
When it comes to developing young talent, few clubs can compete with Borussia Dortmund. Die Schwarz-Gelben provided the most U23 minutes of any side in Europe’s top five leagues last season. The likes of Jude Bellingham, Jadon Sancho, and Erling Haaland linked up for 7,620 in total.
Norwegian forward Haaland is exactly who we are going to highlight for this next pick.
Erling Haaland is no longer an up and coming talent, but a ready-made forward sought after by every club on the continent. With prolific pace, brutish strength, and a fiery mentality which is rarely satisfied when the ball fails to find the net, Erling Haaland is everything you need in a modern centre-forward.
His prolific goalscoring record backs up his €130.00m Transfermarkt fee, making him the second most valuable player in world football. 45 goals, and 15 assists in 47 appearances are an obscene Bundesliga return. However it is in the Champions League where Haaland has shown his generational talents for goalscoring.
17 games, 21 goals, 3 assists. What is supposedly the crème de la crème of club competition is for Haaland but a mere spontaneous midweek kick about where the likes of PSG & Liverpool are routinely put to the sword.
Having already amassed more Champions League goals than Johan Cruyff, Harry Kane, and Ronaldo Nazario, it is safe to say that Dortmund don’t just have the next record-breaking transfer in their ranks, but also a future Ballon d’Or winner capable of dominating continental football for the next decade.
RB Leipzig: Christopher Nkunku
Born November 14, 1997
One could pick an entire XI of Leipzig talents worthy of featuring on this list. However as we are forced to pick just one we’ve gone for the 23-year old French midfielder Christopher Nkunku.
After arriving from PSG in 2019, Nkunku immediately made himself an irreplaceable element in RB’s attack. He contributed 5 goals and 15 assists in his first season in the German topflight. More than warranting the measly €13.00m Leipzig spent on his signature.
Whilst his numbers slightly tailed off last campaign (6 goals and 7 assists), the French youth international has come roaring back in the opening months of the 2021/22 season. He has contributed 9 goals and 3 assists in all competitions, been directly involved in 52% of RB Leipzig’s goals, and even scored a Champions League hattrick away to Manchester City.
Nkunku is far more than just a goalscoring midfielder though, with the Frenchman adept at receiving possession between opposition lines.
In a RB Leipzig side which plays some of the most vertical football in Europe, having a player with Nkunku’s quality to pick out dangerous pockets to receive and turn is essential. While poor finishing and chaotic defending has seen Leipzig take just three victories from their opening seven Bundesliga matches, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any critics of Nkunku.
The Frenchman is in the upper 90th percentile in the top five leagues for shot-creating actions (5.40) & progressive passes received (9.03) per 90. His expected assists of 0.31/90 are almost three times as high as fellow Frenchman Paul Pogba.
VFL Wolfsburg: Maxence Lacroix
Born April 6, 2000 (Age 20)
From one French talent to another. 21-year old centre-back Maxence Lacroix earns our plaudits as VFL Wolfsburg’s one to watch.
A season ago Lacroix was a relatively unknown quantity operating in the French second division. Today the youngster ranks amongst the most promising defenders in world football.
With a quick change of direction, imposing defensive game, and maturity well beyond his years, Maxence Lacroix caught the attention of numerous European giants last season. Reigning Champions League winners Chelsea even bid €20.00m over the summer, whilst a deal to RB Leipzig was within inches of being completed in late July.
However, at least for now the only blue that Lacroix will be wearing is that of his national team. The French youth international anchoring a stalwart Wolfsburg backline which kept 3 clean sheets in their first 4 Bundesliga matches.
Whilst Lacroix is more than capable of a lunging last ditch tackle, it is his defensive intelligence and positional sense which gives him the aura of a young Virgil van Dijk. This is reflected in his stats, with his aerial win percentage remarkably poor (56%), his tackles and clearances fairly average, but his 2.59 interceptions per 90, being exceptional.
Add to this the fact that he is completing almost 14 long range passes every match, and it doesn’t feel like long before the royal blues from South London will go in for a second swoop at Wolfsburg’s marquee centre-back.
Eintracht Frankfurt: Evan N’Dicka
Born August 20, 1999
Young French footballers are becoming quite the trend. Potentially the next Les Blues international popping up in the German city of Frankfurt.
Like Maxence Lacroix, N’Dicka was a product of astute scouting in the French second division, signing in the summer of 2016 after excelling for his boyhood club AJ Auxerre.
Arriving on German shores as a fresh-faced 18-year old, few expected N’Dicka to be more than a youthful prospect in his first season at the club. Even the most optimistic didn’t foresee him slotting in with the ease of a seasoned veteran.
Yet, N’Dicka was all that and more, instantly becoming a cornerstone of the new Adi Hütter regime with 24 Bundesliga starts, and 9 appearances en route to the inspiring penalty shootout defeat in the Europa League semi-final.
A trying 19/20 season saw N’Dicka briefly lose his place. However the Frenchman showed great resolve to come back from his secondary status to once again look irreplaceable in the Frankfurt setup.
What makes him stand out from the hordes of talented defenders in European football is his versatility. Though he is undoubtedly best as a left centre-back, N’Dicka has also flourished when deployed as a left-back in a 4-2-3-1.
There, N’Dicka plays a cautious, but effective game. He might not bomb up and down the wings like Alphonso Davies. However N’Dicka holding his position allows freedom for Frankfurt’s adventurous Serbian winger Filip Kostic.
With more and more top clubs spending heavily on wide attacking talent, having a stoic defensive fullback of N’Dicka’s quality can make the difference between spineless collapse and triumph.
Bayer Leverkusen: Florian Wirtz
Born May 3, 2003
This list could easily include it’s fourth Frenchmen in a row in the form of Moussa Diaby,
However it is just impossible to look past the otherworldly talents of Florian Wirtz.
In 8 matches in all competitions, the German international has contributed 6 goals and 5 assists. His 2.21 goals/assists per 90 aren’t just a Bundesliga high, but are unmatched in all of Europe. Clear of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, and Erling Haaland.
This isn’t a five time Ballon d’Or winner or Europe’s newly crowned top scorer, but an 18-year old attacking midfielder yet to complete his high school diploma.
I wrote at length about Wirtz in Issue #5 of my German Football newsletter, but what really stands out above all else is his ability to carry possession forward and pick out the right pass in the final third.
Though there are obvious comparisons to Leverkusen’s record departure Kai Havertz, Leverkusen will be doing everything they can to keep hold of Wirtz beyond this summer. The usual pantomime villains in Bayern Munich have been swooping around the Bay-Arena. Whilst there is no release clause in Wirtz’s contract, there is a mutual understanding that he will leave the club at the end of the 2022/23 campaign.
Union Berlin: Tymoteusz Puchacz
Born January 23, 1999
Tymoteusz Puchacz (pronounced Poohach) is one of the biggest talents in Polish football, highlighted by the fact that he played in every match at Euro 2020 for the Biało-czerwoni.
Whilst he has yet to feature in the Bundesliga since arriving from Lech Poznan over the summer, Puchacz isn’t letting his head drop, reportedly flying back to Poland at every opportunity to work extra fitness shifts with a personal trainer.
This is exactly the mentality which is required at the Stadion An der Alten Försterei. Home to an Union Berlin side who live off their mentality and willingness to go the extra mile (quite literally, with Die Eisernen leading the Bundesliga last season in distance covered).
Puchacz, for all his workrate and professional attitude, is far more than just a foot soldier though, bringing a huge attacking threat with him from the fullback role. In fact, it wasn’t until last season that Puchacz began regularly featuring in the Poznan defense, with the Polish internationally formerly occupying either the right or left wing where he contributed 4 goals and 6 assists in the 19/20 campaign.
Whilst his output has reasonably dropped off after taking over a more defensive role, Puchacz is still able to provide attacking bursts up the pitch and pose a threat on goal.
In Urs Fischer’s 3-4-1-2 Puchacz will have the ideal setup to see both his attacking and defensive capabilities come to light. Though he has understandably needed time to settle after barely speaking the language and spending no pre-season with his new teammates, it won’t be long before Bundesliga commentators will have to undergo the arduous task of pronouncing the name of Poland’s next big talent.
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Joe Scally
Born December 31, 2002
Things haven’t been running smoothly at the Borussia-Park this season. The Fohlen-elf taking just 4 points out of their first 5 matches.
Fears of a relegation battle may have been assuaged with back-to-back wins over Borussia Dortmund and VFL Wolfsburg. However an injury-hit roster, and unresolved contracts are still occupying the thoughts of sporting director Max Eberl.
With first choice right-back Stefan Lainer suffering an ankle fracture on the second matchday, it has provided an opportunity for American youngster Joe Scally to step into the fray. It is an opportunity he has grasped with open arms.
The 18-year old New York native has played every minute of Gladbach’s season so far. In fact, he is the only teenager in all of Europe’s top five leagues to do so.
Alongside his impressive consistency, Scally is also extremely two-footed. Not only does this allow him to pose a variety of threats at fullback (he can either cut into midfield or progress down the line), but it also makes him a viable solution at left-back.
With Gladbach’s mounting injuries issues, Adi Hütter has cashed in on the youngsters flexibility and started Scally on the left side of the defence in 3 of his 7 Bundesliga starts.
It has been an impressive start to the season, in which Scally was voted the clubs August Player of the Month. However, like the entire Gladbach squad, Scally still has notable room for improvement. Despite scoring this past weekend, Scally has a relatively meagre offensive output, and will need to create a more consistent threat if he is to remain first choice once Stefan Lainer returns to full fitness.
All in all though Max Eberl has made an astute acquisition in the transfer market. In Joe Scally, Bundesliga fans have yet another American talent they can watch develop in the German topflight.
VFB Stuttgart: Borna Sosa
Born January 21, 1998
Joe Scally may need to work on his attacking output from fullback, but that certainly isn’t an issue for Stuttgart’s flying Croatian Borna Sosa.
Sosa has been a revelation since Stuttgart earned Bundesliga promotion in 2020, commanding the left flank in possession and providing a constant threat in the attack.
It is no wonder that the German FA was so adamant in their attempts to make the 23-year old a naturalized citizen last spring, hoping to profit off of his 10 Bundesliga assists at the upcoming European Championships.
Ultimately, the deal fell through. However it shows what an exceptional talent Sosa is when Germany are willing to jump through multiple hoops for the chance of seeing him maraud up and down the flank in a DFB-jersey.
Any lingering disappointment of not featuring at the Euros haven’t been evident in Sosa’s start to the season though, contributing 3 assists in Stuttgart’s opening fixture to show both Croatia and Germany what they missed out on.
Though an injury crisis sees 6 of Die Schwaben’s attackers sidelined, Sosa has continued to pick up the slack on the offensive by leading the division in crosses and passes into the penalty area.
With summer interest from Inter Milan & Bayern Munich the future looks bright for Stuttgart’s flying Croatian wingback. While his defensive contributions are still questionable at times, the attacking incentives Sosa can set are amongst the very best in Europe and are a key reason why he was finally given his first Croatian call up earlier this year!
Enjoyed part 1 of Adam Khan’s Bundesliga Special? Then make sure to subscribe to his free German Football newsletter!