Bayer Leverkusen’s future is bright
Position: Full back
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Position: Attacking midfielder
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
If at the start of the season you had asked Leverkusen fans who their two most impressive players this season would be, you can guarantee that Benjamin Henrichs and Kai Havertz would’ve been far from the first names to be reeled off. With an impressive squad including last year’s top scorer Javier Hernandez, the ever classy Kevin Kampl and big money signing Aleksandr Dragovic at centre back, Henrichs and Havertz may not have even been known to many outside of the German club. However, whilst Bayer are suffering a poor season compared to their usual high standards, these two players to have come through their youth system are taking the first team by storm.
Henrichs is the slightly older of the pair at 20, and prior to this season had seen minimal first team action. He had been included on the bench for the last few months of last season, and managed to start five of the last 8 games at either right or left back. This season has been a real breakthrough for the young German though, easily seeing off competition from Wendell at left back and new signing Danny da Costa at right back. During his time in Leverkusen’s youth teams, Henrichs played in no less than seven positions including both wings, defensive midfield and attacking midfield and this schooling in a variety of positions has left him comfortable playing on either side of the pitch, despite predominantly being right footed.
The modern day full back needs to be equally effective going forward as well as defensively, and Henrichs has shown he has the athleticism to be up and down throughout a game. Blistering pace allows him to cover team mates out of position and make up for any mistakes he makes, whilst also causing uncertainty in opposition defences when making runs from deep. An aggressive and snappy style of tackle has seen him record one of the best tackle success rates in the league this year (65%) despite only picking up three yellow cards so far. His time as a winger as a youngster has helped to hone his technical ability, and it is no rare sight to see him taking on more than one player on a mazy run down the wing.
As with any breakthrough young player, the eyes of the big clubs are never far away and it is no surprise that Henrichs has been linked with a move to both Bayern Munich and Manchester City after earning his first Germany cap against San Marino in November. He would be an excellent fit for the German giants, as with Arjen Robben cutting in perennially from the right he would have the license to fill the space with his lung busting overlapping runs. As club captain and team legend Philipp Lahm is set to retire at the end of the season, there is definitely space for a new right back in Bayern’s squad. Equally, Man City would be an exciting destination for the young full back. With Sagna, Zabaleta, Clichy and Kolarov all the wrong side of 30 and failing to impress this season, it seems likely that Guardiola will be in the hunt for a full back or two in the summer transfer window. Henrichs’ ability to play at either right or left back will appeal to Guardiola’s love of tactical flexibility, as will his history of playing in centre midfield. This season has often seen City’s two fullbacks filling in in midfield, and Henrichs has shown he has both the ability to control and use the ball well in this area of the field. Since leaving Barcelona, Guardiola has yet to work with a full back in the same mould as Dani Alves, but Henrichs could well be that man if Leverkusen do decide to cash in.
Henrichs however, may not be able to claim the title of Hottest Young Prospect at Leverkusen as exciting young attacker Kai Havertz has become the apple of many fan’s eye. At only 17 years old, he is both the youngest player to play and score in the Bundesliga for Bayer and this season has seen him make his Champions League debut as well. Joining up with the first team for pre-season training last year, he has been a fixture in the team ever since impressing as a substitute in a cup game against Sportfreunde Lotte in November. He has gone from strength to strength since that game, starting in huge games against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid over vastly more experienced players such as Kevin Volland and Stefan Kießling.
Comparisons have been made to Mesut Ozil due to his style of play, with his ability to play in tight spaces and pick a pass combined with the natural ability to ghost past players as if they weren’t there. At 6ft2 though, Havertz has shown himself to be effective in the air too and has been used as a no. 9 at times as well as a no. 10 and winger. His tender age is easy to forget when watching him play due to his large frame, and because he demonstrates great composure that belies his years. He did however have to miss the last 16 return leg against Atletico Madrid as he had an important exam at school, which was a gentle reminder of his age but also his extraordinary potential. He has continued to feature in the first team since a change of manager with Schmidt departing and Korkut taking over, and if nurtured properly over the next few years he could easily become a mainstay in the German national team. Don’t be surprised to see Bayern come knocking for Havertz soon.
Cort Robson (Football Analyst)
All Player to Watch articles are formed on analyst’s opinion rather than in-house statistics.
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