When Kai Havertz left Bayer Leverkusen last summer to join Chelsea for £71m, fans unfamiliar with the Cologne-based club would have worried about how they replaced their talisman. They would be even more surprised when the transfer window shut and Peter Bosz hadn’t reinvested that money in a replacement, but little did they know that Leverkusen had already made a very canny signing the season before to prepare for this very situation.
Wirtz made the unpopular decision of moving from FC Köln to local rivals Leverkusen last January when still considered an academy prospect. An unwritten agreement exists between the two clubs and Borussia Dortmund that the three sides won’t attempt to sign youth players from each other, however, Leverkusen argued that they were signing a first-team player so Wirtz’s move was OK. The global pandemic prevented Leverkusen from putting their money where their mouth was, until the Bundesliga restarted and Wirtz was thrown straight into the starting line-up by Bosz in their first game back against Werder Bremen. And it’s safe to say, Wirtz’s debut – which made him the Bundesliga’s youngest ever player – wasn’t a token gesture. The attacking midfielder is now an important part of Leverkusen’s attempt to get back into the Champions League.
“The best midfielder to come through the club [FC Köln] in 30 years”Kölner Express
There are clear similarities between Wirtz and Havertz. Both prefer to sit behind a domineering striker, occupying pockets of space created by their own movement but also their teammates dragging defenders and shielding midfielders out of position, but both are equally versatile. Comparing Wirtz’s statistics for this season to Havertz’s last season paints an interesting picture. Havertz’s goals / 90 mins rate is better (0.44 v 0.26), whereas Wirtz outperforms him when it comes to assists / 90 mins (0.32 v 0.22). Havertz is a more accomplished passer, his completion rate is nearly 10% better than Wirtz’s, but this is an aspect of the 17-year-olds game that will improve with age. The other key stat to review is Shot Creating Actions (SCA) and Goal Creating Actions (GCA). Havertz is the better performer in terms of SCA (4.33 per game v. 3.58), but they rank exactly the same when it comes to GCA (0.51 per game). There’s only so much context you can gather from looking purely at statistics, a more in-depth review of Wirtz playing style will reveal more, but the initial signs are very promising that the youngster can step into Havertz’s shoes. It should also be noted that Havertz spent more time playing as a false nine, whereas Wirtz’s more slight frame makes him unsuitable to play in this role.
Wirtz’s heatmap highlights his flexibility in two aspects; firstly his tactical flexibility that allows Bosz to deploy Wirtz in a variety of positions, and Wirtz’s positional flexibility that he’s comfortable picking up the ball in a number of areas and doesn’t shirk away from taking responsibility in deeper positions. One point of interest from this heatmap and demonstrated in Wirtz’s play style is he’s an attacking player who plays on the same wing as his dominant foot, although Leverkusen’s reluctance to send crosses into the box mean Wirtz tends to occupy in the right inside space as opposed to hugging the touchline.
In this first example, we see a few of Wirtz’s best qualities. In the top picture, Wirtz is in the centre-forward (in black) position between the centre-back and right-back. The other centre-back has pushed forward to press Alario, opening up space for Wirtz to burst into. When the pass is played into him, his first action is to check over his shoulder to see how much time he has before the full-back reaches him. He dribbles into the box, shielding the ball from three defenders, before laying the ball off to Moussa Diaby (bottom of the second picture), to shoot.
In the same game against Dortmund, Wirtz scores the winner by once again occupying the empty space left by Alario, this time after he drifted wide to assist Diaby in gaining possession. He’s in acres of space, but the pass is played behind him, so he has to virtually come to a standstill to collect the pass. Wirtz isn’t known for his acceleration, but manages to generate enough energy to drive towards goal and takes his shot early, catching Burki slightly off-guard and preventing any Dortmund defenders from getting close enough to him to put him under pressure, and powerfully beats the keeper, although he may have benefited from a small bobble. Wirtz is running slightly away from goal, but goes across Burki with his stronger foot, which is a difficult finish to execute from that distance when running at speed. This shouldn’t be a surprise, Wirtz has the highest shots on target rate of any Leverkusen player to attempt more than ten shots this season.
Wirtz isn’t known for his crossing, not because he doesn’t possess the ability to execute them effectively as the above example shows, but because Leverkusen are set up to play narrowly when in possession. Here, Wirtz has been given plenty of time on the corner of the box against Borussia Mönchengladbach, and floats a cross onto the head of Alario, who bravely beats Yann Sommer in the air to head into an empty net. For a cross with this little pace on it, being absolutely precise is essential, as Alario needs time to set himself, jump early, and generate the necessary power to score.
In Leverkusen’s game against Stuttgart this season, Wirtz is played in behind their midfield with several options in front of him. His decision-making is good, an angle has opened up for him to slip Alario in between the centre-backs, however, his execution is poor and the ball is played behind the striker. Alario is able to hold the ball up and lay it off to Diaby, and Wirtz has continued his run into the box, and is picked out by Diaby’s cross which he converts brilliantly with a looped header.
Wirtz’s heading isn’t brilliant and is unlikely to be a skill that improves in the future unless he has a late growth spurt. At 5″9, he unlikely to win many contested aerial duels (he’s only won 16.7% this season) and he doesn’t possess a great leap to compensate. However, he’s also unlikely to be in a position to contest these headers in attacking areas. During more structured attacks, Wirtz prefers to linger on the outside of the box, waiting to either pounce on a clearance or help move the ball across the pitch from one side to another. However, during Leverkusen’s counter attacks Wirtz is happy to burst into the area for several reasons. Either the traditional centre-forward is out of position due to the nature of the attack and the scenario in which the ball has been won back, or because Leverkusen’s intense press means Wirtz has found himself in a more advanced role than expected.
In this last example, Wirtz shows his passing ability when in possession inside his own half. Gladbach have played a high line, allowing Diaby to make a run on the left-wing into the space in behind. Wirtz looks up and curls a pass into Diaby’s path without the winger having to break stride. It’s a skill that he hasn’t been able to utilise fully so far this season, although that could be seen as a positive as Leverkusen are able to progress the ball further up the pitch before Wirtz is involved.
And finally on Germany…
In the past Germany’s youth international squads have contained several recognisable names going into summer tournaments, but this year’s squad is likely to provide a group of very talented players a platform to showcase themselves on the continental stage. Manchester City fans will be familiar with Lukas Nmecha – currently on loan at Anderlecht – who was Germany’s top scorer in qualifying, while Wolfsburg’s summer signing Ridle Baku is another one to watch either at right-back or possibly playing in a more advanced role. Brentford’s Vitaly Janelt is likely to start in the centre of midfield alongside FC Köln’s Salih Özcan, but appearances were shared out between dozens of players leading up to the tournament, so predicting Stefan Kuntz’s starting line-up is tricky.
Germany are favourites to progress from their group alongside the Netherlands, but Romania have a formidable crop of players coming through that could cause them problems. Home advantage won’t mean as much in this tournament as it has been in previous events, and although Hungary will want to put on a strong showing, their squad is unlikely to cause too many upsets.
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