If Serge Gnabry is Bayern Munich’s official 2018/19 Player of the Season, Leon Goretzka has to be considered a prime candidate for the unofficial Unsung Hero gong.
Goretzka made an invaluable contribution to Bayern’s hair-raising title defence in his debut season at the club, making his mark on an all-conquering midfield chock-full with world-class alternatives, producing eight Bundesliga goals, four assists and much more besides.
Watch: Who is Leon Goretzka
“I’m a big, big fan,” swooned Matthias Sammer, no doubt wishing he could have brought the ex-Bochum academy talent to the Allianz Arena during his four-year tenure as Bayern sporting director between July 2012 and July 2016. “He always had the potential, but injuries got in the way at Schalke. Now he’s truly arrived.”
And how. In his five previous seasons in the Bundesliga with Schalke, Goretzka only hit the 30-game mark he achieved at the first time of asking with Bayern once. He registered four goals and one assist in 2013/14, followed by an injury-ravaged blank on both fronts in 2014/15. One and four (2015/16), five and five (2016/17) and four and four (2017/18) completed his pre-Bayern tally of goals and assists, before the seeds of promise sprouted into a spectacular specimen on Munich soil.
The rangy Goretzka (l.) is a throwback to a bygone era of box-to-box midfielders. – imago images / kolbert-press
With Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martinez, James Rodriguez and Renato Sanches among the competition for places in the Bayern midfield, Goretzka found his niche in the role vacated by Arturo Vidal. He played in deeper and more advanced central positions and even moonlighted at right- and left-back, but nowhere more were his gazelle-like bursts into opposition penalty boxes more pronounced than as a No.8.
“It was my first season at a world-class club, and I think everything went really well,” said Goretzka, third in Bayern’s end-of-season scoring charts after Robert Lewandowski (22) and Gnabry (10). “We won the Bundesliga and DFB Cup, and I also realised my own goals: I helped the team, I found my place in the side and I think I also made the next step with the national team, so I’m very happy with how my season went. I might be a bit more critical when I look back on things whilst on holiday, though (smiles).”
One of the boys: Goretzka (2nd.r) has slotted in seamlessly alongside the likes of Joshua Kimmich (1st.l.), Serge Gnabry (2nd.l.) and Thomas Müller (1st.r.) at Bayern. – 2019 Getty Images
Goretzka better be good at nit-picking. As well as his career-best eight goals – four of which fell in a three-match burst that earned him the Bundesliga’s Player of the Month award for January – he tallied the most opening goals (four); the most efforts on goal (52); the highest speed (21mph); the second best shots-to-goal ratio (6.5) and the second highest number of passes to a shot on goal (26) of any Bayern midfielder. Gold stars for end product and endeavour.
Where Goretzka fell marginally short of Thiago and Co. are hardly areas he’ll lose any sleep over: tackles won (47 per cent), passes completed (90.4 per cent) and distance covered (7.25 miles). Given his penchant for the No.8 role – “my best position” and dynamic displays off the shoulder of Lewandowski – a Matchday 18 brace at Hoffenheim and another strike against VfB Stuttgart a week later – he is the type of player measured primarily on his goals and assists anyway.
Watch: Leon Goretzka’s midfield masterclass vs. Hoffenheim
Goretzka is also exactly the kind of player Bayern have been crying out for since eight-time Bundesliga winner Bastian Schweinsteiger left the club for Manchester United in July 2015. He doesn’t boast the precision passing of Thiago – who does?! – or the battering-ram qualities or Martinez, but he does possess an in-built feel for the final third – how to carve out space and exploit it – as well as a tempered level of aggression that makes him an ideal counter-balance as part of a midfield double pivot.
“Leon slipped in through the back door, not exactly as a superstar, but he’s made the most of the opportunity,” explained Bayern head coach Niko Kovac of Goretzka – a hot contender for free transfer of the 21st Century. “He’s a great character and a great person. He’s kept his feet on the ground and worked hard for the team. His decision-making is fantastic, and he did a fantastic job whenever he came into the side.”
Niko Kovac (r.) experimented with Goretzka (l.) before deploying him to great effect in No.8 and No.10 roles. – imago/osnapix
Joachim Löw is another prominent member of the Goretzka Appreciation Society. The Germany boss handed the 6’2″ dynamo his senior international debut as a 19-year-old in May 2014, and has since witnessed his midfield protege produce eight goals and two assists in a further 22 outings for his country. The system isn’t necessarily what Goretzka is used to at Bayern – Löw now favours a 3-4-3 formation compared to Kovac’s 4-2-3-1 – but the result is the same.
“He always delivers,” Löw said of Goretzka, who was joint-top scorer as Die Mannschaft lifted the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia. “He has very good technique, a lot of pace on and off the ball, and he has a big personality that belies his age. He had his injury problems in the past; they hindered his progress, but now we’re seeing that he’s one of the most talented players around.”
Goretzka (l.) has registered two goals and one assist in four appearances for Germany in 2019. – imago images / Team 2
Goretzka’s debut-season splash at Bayern is evidence enough of that. After Bayer Leverkusen teenager Kai Havertz, Borussia Dortmund captain Marco Reus (both 17 goals) and Hertha Berlin‘s Ondrej Duda (11), he was the Bundesliga’s next-best scorer from a central midfield starting position – despite making 10, four and seven fewer starts respectively. And while the 24-year-old is at the top of his game, he is still some way off his peak. Brace yourselves because it’s all systems Go-retzka!