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 Club’s Most Exciting Talent Under 23.
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SC Freiburg: Nico Schlotterbeck
Born December 1, 1999
SC Freiburg are the picture of a sustainably run football club. They boast topflight football, a state-of-the-art academy, and an iconic manager. Now in their sixth consecutive Bundesliga season, Christian Streich and the Breisgau Brazilians have their eyes set on Europe. One of the key figures to make it happen is 21-year old Nico Schlotterbeck.
An academy graduate who excelled on loan at Union Berlin last season, Nico Schlotterbeck is now back in the Schwarzwald to cement a spot at SC Freiburg.
And, so far that’s exactly what he has done. Schlotterbeck has played every minute for a side who are the only unbeaten club remaining in the Bundesliga after 8 matchdays.
Beyond his stellar defensive output (leads Freiburg in tackles and is second in the entire division for clearances), Schlotterbeck’s most impressive achievements come in possession.
At last season’s under 21 Euros Schlotterbeck made 455 accurate passes, the second most of any player in the competition. And, these weren’t just casual passes to the safest option, but often line-breaking balls which provided the impulse for a German attack.
When he isn’t using his exceptional passing range to set up attacks, Schlotterbeck is more than adept at carrying possession out of the backline as well. His 4.82 progressive carries per 90 put him above the likes of Dayot Upamecano and Maxence Lacroix, whilst only Emre Can is on a comparative level for dribbles completed amongst Bundesliga centerbacks.
Having been called up to his second consecutive Germany squad this month, one can expect Nico Schlotterbeck to have a big career for club & country. One wouldn’t even be surprised if he were the next great defender to leave Freiburg this summer after the likes of Mathias Ginter, Robin Koch, and Çağlar Söyüncü paved the way!
TSG Hoffenheim: Christoph Baumgartner
Born August 1, 1999
The Bundesliga has been no stranger to Austrian talent. The likes of Ernst Happel, Bruno Pezzey, and David Alaba have all forged a career on German shores. Though Christoph Baumgartner has a long way to go to reach an equally legendary status, the St.Pölten academy graduate is on the right track at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena.
Baumgartner has established himself as a vital figure in TSG Hoffenheim’s attack, playing in 63 of Die Kraichgauer’s last 75 top flight matches.
And, whilst he may not be able to replicate the record-breaking 25-goal haul from his final season in the Austrian youth leagues, Baumgartner has still contributed a healthy 13 goals and 9 assists across the last two Bundesliga campaigns.
Couple this with a standout performance at the European Championships, and Baumgartner has become Hoffenheim’s next hot commodity to attract interest from Liverpool.
Jurgen Klopp is beginning to phase Roberto Firmino (another ex-Hoffenheim forward) out of his starting eleven. Bringing in a like-for-like replacement in the mould of Christoph Baumgartner could be the seamless transition to allow the mighty reds to continue their assault on English football.
It isn’t just his solid attacking output from attacking midfield. His impressive defensive numbers have also undoubtedly piqued the interest of the former Dortmund & Mainz manager.
With 20.42 pressures per 90, Baumgartner isn’t just in the 85th percentile for defensive actions amongst all midfielders, but is also outshining both Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi in pressures, aerials won, and interceptions per 90.
Mainz 05: Leandro Barreiro
Born January 3, 2000
It’s not often that we highlight Luxembourgian football, the 8th smallest country in Europe and the 94th ranked side in FIFA’s Men’s ranking. Yet, in Leandro Barreiro, the Red Lions have uncovered an absolute diamond. The central midfielder has already earned 21 international caps, and has become an irreplaceable figure in a Mainz side on course for European football.
Though he grew up in Erpeldange, Luxembourg, Barreiro joined the Mainz 05 academy when he was just 16-years old, steadily working his way up the ranks before making his first team debut in 2019.
The central midfielder embodies the high-pressing, heavy-metal style which has become synonymous with Die Nullfünfer since Wolfgang Frank took charge in the late 90s. Barreiro doesn’t just lead the entire Bundesliga in tackles this season, but his 126 pressures are also more than what Joshua Kimmich, Leon Gortezka, Jude Bellingham, and Thomas Müller have registered so far.
This defensive tenacity made Barreiro such a valuable figure for Bo Svensson’s revival last season. He started 27 of 34 Bundesliga matches, and of the 7 matches he either missed completely or began on the bench Mainz failed to pick up a single point.
Add to that his goal and assist in a relegation six pointer versus 1.FC Köln, and Barreiro even became an outside shout for player of the season at the MEWA ARENA.
Having recently signed an extension until 2024, Mainz 05 fans won’t need to worry about losing their next great talent just yet.
International experience, the support of his manager, and a key role in a club on the up. Barreiro is on track to become the next central midfielder to cement his place in Mainz 05 folklore.
FC Augsburg: Niklas Dorsch
Born January 15, 1998
There are a number of players from Germany’s u21 Euro triumph who appear on this list. However none have caught my eye quite like Niklas Dorsch.
The 23-year old midfielder was the heartbeat of Stefan Kuntz’s side. Mopping up danger in front of the backline and playing line breaking passes to Germany’s vibrant attack.
Winning Man of the Match in the final and voted into the team of the tournament, it wouldn’t be long before Niklas Dorsch became a hot commodity in the transfer window with FC Augsburg ultimately confirming his signature on the 8th of July.
Having opted against representing Germany at the Olympics, Niklas Dorsch has used his extended pre-season to lock down a position in the heart of the Fuggerstädter’s midfield. The FC Bayern academy graduate has started 6 of Augsburg’s 7 Bundesliga fixtures, as well as going a full 90 minutes in a first round DFB-Pokal win.
As expected, Dorsch has made an exceptional impact in Augsburg’s defensive stability, He leads the side in pressures and interceptions, as well as registering the third most successful tackles in the entire German topflight. With his aggressive approach and 1.78m stature, Niklas Dorsch is very reminiscent of Ngolo Kante in his ability to bully larger opponents off the ball through impressive positioning and smart decision-making.
As Germany transition to a new era in midfield, there could be an opening up for a player like Niklas Dorsch to fill.
Hertha BSC: Myziane Maolida
Born February 14, 1999
Myziane Maolida joined Hertha BSC from OGC Nice on the final day of the summer window.
The Parisian born forward is lightning quick with a direct approach to goal, something which became clear in his debut vs VFL Bochum.
Picking up possession just inside the Bochum half, Maolida drove the ball to the edge of the box before unleashing a precise finish into the bottom corner. It was a goal just 21 minutes into his Bundesliga career, the type of efficiency which had so often plagued him at Nice.
There, Maolida showed glimpses of his extraordinary talent, but was rarely able to turn into any consistent end product. Just four goals in four seasons was far too few for a player Les Aiglons paid €10.00m to acquire. This will need to be addressed if Maolida is to become a building block for a new-look Hertha BSC.
However, there is still a lot of raw potential which made Maolida one of the most exciting deadline-day deals in Europe.
His speed and dynamism is a welcome addition in Hertha’s squad following the departures of Dodi Lukébakio, and Javairô Dilrosun. His trickery and propensity for the unexpected are reminiscent of another departed member in Matheus Cunha.
A hamstring injury sees the former French youth international sidelined until after the October international break. However one can expect Maolida to play a major role in hopefully stabilizing Die Alte Dame this season.
Arminia Bielefeld: Amos Pieper
January 17, 1998
Few would have thought it when Amos Pieper was playing fourth tier football for Dortmund’s reserves two years ago, but the 23-year old centre-back has matured into one of the most talented defenders in all of Germany.
Though Arminia Bielefeld narrowly escaped the drop in 15th place, Pieper and the defensive unit were not to blame for the poor placement, conceding the 7th fewest goals of any Bundesliga side and keeping the 3rd most clean sheets.
The entire Bielefeld defense should take credit for this showing. That said, it is hard to overlook Amos Pieper and his role as the figurehead for Die Blauen’s spectacular Bundesliga survival.
Not only did he start 30 of the 34 fixtures. The BVB academy graduate led the entire league in blocks and clearances, regularly putting his body on the line to protect Bielefeld’s top flight status.
With a contract running out this summer, it will be interesting to see where we will see Amos Pieper lineup next season. The 23-year old’s 2020/21 campaign and subsequent Euro’s victory has grabbed a lot of attention around Europe.
The likes of RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen were heavily linked this summer, but should top flight survival look likely, we could see Pieper extend his deal at the Bielefelder Alm this January.
1.FC Köln: Jan Thielmann
Born May 25, 2002
1.FC Köln have been one of the positive surprises this season, going from within an inch of relegation to in the running for European football after 7 matchdays. A big reason for this improvement has been the appointment of Steffan Baumgart, a uniquely passionate manager who has taken to the club like a duck to water.
He has gotten the best out of written off stars, revived enthusiasm with his unique attacking football, and trusted in youth players like Jan Thielmann.
Thielmann, 1 of a league-high 10 homegrown players in the squad, has featured in 4 of Köln’s first 7 Bundesliga matches. Whilst the U19 international played primarily as a right midfielder throughout his youth career, it’s his versatility and two-footedness which has made him such a resounding success in the professional game.
In his 40 Bundesliga appearances Thielmann has played all across the front-three and as an attacking midfielder, registering at least a goal or assist in each of the four positions. This willingness to help out wherever he is required also shows up in his defensive output, putting in the extra effort to keep Köln defensively sound.
With 2.10 tackles and 0.93 interceptions per 90, Thielmann is in the upper 90th percentile for defensive actions amongst forwards in Europe’s top five leagues. Though it doesn’t look like Köln will be in another relegation battle this season, Thielmann’s mentality to lead the defensive charge from the front is precisely what you need to maintain topflight status.
If there is anything that the 19-year old could still improve on it would be his end product. 2 goals and 5 assists in 40 Bundesliga appearances seems atrocious for a player who primarily operates in an attacking position. However, he is averaging only 47 minutes per appearance, signalling that most of his 40 Bundesliga caps have come as short cameos off the bench with very little time to make an impact.
If Thielmann is afforded an extended run of games under Baumgart this season, then we could well see the next fantastic talent rising from Die Geißböcke’s academy.
VFL Bochum: Armel Bella-Kotchap
Born December 11, 2001
Armel Bella-Kotchap is the fifth centerback to appear on our list. Despite still being months away from his 20th birthday, has already accumulated more than 50 appearances for last season’s Zweite Bundesliga champions.
A Parisian born German youth international, Bella-Kotchap seems to bring the best of both the French and German styles to his game. He has the natural athleticism seen in the likes of Dayot Upamecano, and Mohamed Simakan, as well as the quick decision-making which we have seen in other Bochum academy graduates like Leon Goretzka and Lukas Klostermann.
Both of these traits were evident in Bochum’s gameweek 6 encounter against VFB Stuttgart. A 0-0 draw in which the 19-year old was immense throughout. His 100% tackle success showed his importance in keeping Bochum’s second clean sheet of the season, whilst his 39 passes were the second most of any outfield player in Thomas Reis’ ranks.
Though it feels premature to speculate on a transfer for a player just 7 games into his topflight career, Bella-Kotchap has already started to make waves around Europe. The Sun reported Chelsea had made contact over the summer, whilst the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Real Madrid, and FC Barcelona are all closely watching the development of the 1,90 m centre-back.
Greuther Fürth: Adrian Fein
Born March 18, 1999
And to round off our Bundesliga one’s to watch, we have Greuther Fürth.
Die Kleeblätter (clover leaves) are firm outsiders this season, coming up from the Zweite Bundesliga with modest expectations and a combined market value less than that what Bayern paid for Dayot Upamecano. They do however have the third youngest squad in the topflight, with 16 players under the age of 23 to choose from.
One of these is 21-year old German youth international Maximilian Bauer, a centerback who has played every minute across the first 7 matchdays. He would be the obvious choice. However he has really disappointed in his positional awareness, not to mention the 19 goals Stefan Leitl’s side have conceded with him in the side.
Jessic Ngankam is another highly-regarded youngster, but he too is unfortunately pulled out of the equation after tearing his ACL just 2 days into preseason.
That leaves Adrian Fein, an immensely talented Bayern loanee who surprisingly has registered just 22 minutes of Bundesliga action this season.
Stefan Leitl has put it down to a poor mentality out of possession. However the 22-year old’s technique and creativity is sorely needed in a Fürth side who have gone out in the first round of the DFB Pokal and have just 1 point after 7 matchdays.
Whilst Fein wasn’t entirely successful on loan at PSV Eindhoven, the youngster left a lasting impression at the Volksparkstadion in 2019.
The Bayern academy graduate featured in 31 of 34 matches for Hamburger SV, dictating possession in central midfield and constantly providing angles to be played into. Though he was still a teenager when he signed that summer, HSV fans quickly proclaimed him “as the type of player who had been missing at the club for more than a decade“. Ultimately Fein & HSV would miss out on Bundesliga promotion, but the future looked bright for one of the biggest talents in German football.
A year confined to the bench in Eindhoven and a sub-optimal start to life in Fürth may have damaged that reputation, but Fein is still a player highly regarded at FC Bayern where he has been under contract since he was 8 years old.
Should Stefan Leitl find a way to integrate the Rekordmeister’s metronomic presence in the heart of central midfield, Greuther Fürth could still have a shot of pulling off a sensational topflight survival!
Enjoyed part 2 of Adam Khan’s Bundesliga Special? Then make sure to subscribe to his free German Football newsletter!