Three early breakout stars of the Bundesliga season
Elk nadeel heeft zijn voordeel. Translation: every disadvantage has an advantage. It was one of the many, many Dutch sayings coined by the greatest footballer and football-mind the country has ever known, Johan Cruijff. A saying that currently is applicable to the situation wherein the Bundesliga finds itself.
The glory days of 2013, when Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund faced off in the Champions League, and 2014, the year in which the German national team became Weltmeister in convincing fashion, seem like the distant past. The Bundesliga clubs, excluding Bayern - although, even they have not been great these past few editions - have struggled to make their mark in the final stages of the Champions League recently. The financial gap with the Premier League clubs and the mainstays from Spanish La Liga is not being bridged either. So, it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that a scenario like last year’s Champions League (no German club in the quarter finals) or like the edition of 2017-18 (not a single non-Bayern team from the Bundesliga present in the knockout stages) will occur once more. A scenario that would be deemed impossible, just a few years ago.
But, there’s a reason I started this article with a quote the great JC. Because with adversity comes opportunity. While the Bundesliga might not be the best league in terms of general level of play right now, it has a good claim on the title of ‘most trustworthy talent-factory of European top football’. Just take a look at the rosters at the very top: almost every elite team has a few Bundesliga alumni amongst their most important players.
So, with that said, it seems like a sensible idea to take a quick look at the newest crop of breakout players in this year’s Bundesliga. International stars like Heung-Min Son, Marc-André Ter Stegen and Leroy Sané took their first steps to full-blown stardom in the German league - a scenario that the players below also hope for.
Zack Steffen (24), Fortuna Düsseldorf
For those among you who follow Major League Soccer closely, Steffen’s very rapid emergence in the Bundesliga will come as less of a surprise. The USMNT goalie - one of the handful of U.S. national players who is up to par for an internationally adequate level - was rather impressive at Columbus Crew the past few seasons. That's why Manchester City paid a pretty lofty sum (8 million euros) for a buy-and-stash goalkeeper.
The fans of Fortuna Düsseldorf are most likely thrilled with the one-year loan of Steffen. He posted a whopping total of ten saves on his debut, a game in which Fortuna rode Steffen’s cat-like reflexes to a surprising 1-3 away win. After five match-weeks, Steffen already seems to have an insurmountable lead in save totals amongst Bundesliga keepers: he has already tallied 33 saves, which gives him a 14 save lead to the second most-active shot topper in Germany’s top league.
Looking at the more advanced stats, Steffen comes off looking, if possible, even better. He's saved almost five goals more than an average keeper might be expected to.
That's the best mark in the league. If instead of raw numbers, we look at percentages, Steffen's 79.5% save percentage is 12.2% higher than expected given the profile of the shots on goal he's faced. That's the third highest gap in the league. Anyway you look at it, Steffen is playing his face off. It is at least worth noting, in the face of this amazing form, that during Steffen's last season at MLS his save % was actually lower by 5.1% than expectations.
Düsseldorf, who deploy a fairly direct, counter-attacking playing style, are currently giving up a whopping total of 17,6 shots against per game, so Steffen will have a lot of opportunities to showcase his array of skills. The American shot-stopper’s main calling-card are his reflexes - Steffen could develop into one of Europe’s premier ‘line keepers’ - but he also impresses when the ball is at his feet, displaying pretty nifty ball-control and a really nice long ball. Steffen’s ‘floor’ seems to be a future wherein he is a very solid back-up for Ederson Moraes at Manchester City. But, if this form continues, he already seems to be a little too good to stand in someone else’s shadow, and only play in ten to 15 cup games a year.
Amine Harit (22), Schalke 04
This breakout is one that is near and dear to my heart. In 2017/18, when Schalke somehow clawed itself to a shocking league finish in second place under the guidance of Domenico Tedesco, the Moroccan dribbling machine regularly showed glimpses of future superstardom. But then, Schalke went full Schalke last season. The Königsblauen, the Royal Blues of Gelsenkirchen, filled their 2018/19 campaign with more personal drama than any given high-school drama currently filling up Netflix. With results falling flat early, Tedesco tightened up his already opponent-focused playing style, before his tenure ended amidst some very Schalke-esque muddiness. Harit was already slumping, but when Schalke turned to Huub Stevens, the most old school of football oldheads, in times of crisis, the Moroccan’s season crashed. Harit played in a grand total of nine minutes in Schalke’s last five league games of the 2018/19 season.
The arrival of former Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner in Gelsenkirchen has revived Harit’s play. Wagner’s switch in playing system - the 5-3-2 formation of the past two seasons has been replaced by a more traditional 4-2-3-1 - and bigger roles in midfield for the talented Suat Serdar and the ever-energetic Omar Mascarell, have had a really positive effect on Harit, who plays as an inverted winger on the left side. In six competitive games for Schalke this year, Harit has already scored three goals - including a very juicy side-footed game-winner from distance last weekend (2-1 against Mainz) - tallied two assists, and won a penalty.
Clearly Harit is benefiting from a finishing hot streak, but if we take one step back and look at his dribbling we see where he really shines. Only Jadon Sancho and Leon Bailey are averaging more completed dribbles per 90 minutes (out of players who have played more than 200 minutes) after five Bundesliga games than Harit's 3.90. And, as we can see from this map of all his carries, he's a frequent and secure mover with the ball at his feet.
Gonçalo Paciência (25), Eintracht Frankfurt
Last year, Eintracht Frankfurt - a club with a huge amount of fans, but a perennial mid-tier inhabitant (at best) in the standings - almost finished in a Champions League spot, thanks in large part to their super threesome of attackers: Sébastien Haller, Luka Jovic and Ante Rebic. Selling Haller (West Ham) and Jovic (Real Madrid) this summer already made Frankfurt about 100 millions euros, with Rebic currently loaned out at AC Milan. There’s no way that Frankfurt had another hugely undervalued, complete striker on their roster, last season, right? Right? RIGHT?
Yeah, Gonçalo Paciência is good, y’all. Really good.
The Portuguese striker is a clinical finisher, a strong aerial presence, and surprisingly calm and smart as a passer.
While his goal scoring is a little ahead of his xG, of 0.43 per 90 minutes is perfectly respectable. And, also pretty important when playing for a Bundesliga club, he works his ass off in pressing the opposing build-up all over the pitch.
Frankfurt bought Paciência last summer at a bargain price, as well. FC Porto agreed to a transfer fee of 3 million euros. Paciência, who has scored three and assisted one in both the Bundesliga and Europa League this season, will make Frankfurt another fortune in the near future. The recent recruitment successes of Die Adler with sporting director Fredi Bobic at the helm will have a strengthening effect on the club in the long term. In the short term, they are mostly felt in the form of loads of goals by strikers bought on the cheap.