Florian Wirtz made history as the youngest player to reach 10 Bundesliga goals with his winner for Bayer Leverkusen against Mainz recently, and his performances have gathered plenty of attention across Europe.
Having been influential at under-21 level for Germany, on Monday in the 4-0 win against North Macedonia, the attacking midfielder came on for the fourth time at senior level and registered an assist as his lay-off was expertly slotted into the far corner by Timo Werner.
The 18-year-old is clearly destined for the top and has been linked with all the big clubs in Europe including Bayern Munich and Chelsea. He will get a chance to showcase his skills when second-placed Leverkusen host Bundesliga leaders Bayern this Sunday (stream live on ESPN+ at 9.30 ET), but what can his club and country expect from the midfielder? And just how far can his career develop?
Already a star for FC Cologne at youth level, Wirtz signed for Bayer Leverkusen in January 2020, much to the disapproval of his former club as the neighbouring teams had an unwritten agreement to stay clear of each other's talents.
Initially the idea was for Wirtz to play out the season at U19 level but after just a few months then-Leverkusen head coach Peter Bosz had seen enough of the youngster to hand him his first-team debut just a week after he turned 17.
After becoming the club's youngest player to appear in a competitive senior game, Wirtz has since cemented his place in the first-team squad. Right at the end of the 2019-20 season, the teenager even got on the scoresheet against Bayern Munich, making him the youngest ever Bundesliga goal scorer at 17 years and 34 days -- though that record has since been broken by Borussia Dortmund's Youssoufa Moukoko. This season has seen him reach new heights.
Though occasionally used in other positions (left or right winger, or central midfielder) at youth and senior level, Wirtz is predominantly a central attacking midfielder. At Leverkusen he mainly operates behind a central striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
For Germany, his few outings have seen him come off the bench in a similar role, though his chances of getting a game have been slim when competing with the likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Thomas Muller, Kai Havertz and Jamal Musiala (among others) for a place in the team.
Contrary to many of his contemporaries who prefer to cut infield from wide positions to perform playmaking actions in the centre, Wirtz seems to prefer the more traditional interpretation of the role -- typically picking up the ball deep in central areas rather than on the wing.
With five goals from six competitive games for Leverkusen so far this season, it's certainly Wirtz's goal scoring exploits which have attracted most attention recently. But while his ability in front of goal has improved (he's already just one goal behind last season's Bundesliga tally of five), the general quality and precision of the way he executes his attacking moves is what makes him special.
His short and medium-range passing is more often than not perfectly weighted with the right angles, pace and power. His excellent first touch and well-developed ability to assess the attacking movement before he receives the ball wins him precious seconds. He's also refreshingly practical in his way of playing football; there's purpose behind everything he does and he's unselfish enough to understand the value of moving the ball on instead of dribbling just for the sake of it.
When he does take on opponents, however, it is also with a clear idea in mind. More than anything, Wirtz is an exceptional transition/counter-attack player. When Leverkusen regain possession he immediately moves into the right spaces to receive the ball and, once in control of it, he's able to advance quickly and deliver the perfectly executed through-ball or shot.
The end product -- not just goals and assists, as he recently registered four key passes in the 30 minutes he featured for Germany against Armenia -- is improving all the time, being such a difference maker and having so many telling contributions is certainly highly unusual for an 18-year old at the top level.
The way Wirtz has conducted himself and kept improving over the past year, amid media attention and growing expectations, suggests he has an excellent mentality. If further evidence is needed, look at his workmanlike approach on the pitch, despite being branded as a creative player.
When it comes to his style of play, Wirtz somewhat resembles the ex-Ajax, Real Madrid and Spurs midfielder, Rafael van der Vaart, although the German is slightly more agile and should go on to make an even more illustrious career than the 109-capped Netherlands international.
Areas to improve
There are few faults to find with one of the most promising teenagers in European football (especially with his decision making and maturity high up on the list of strong points.) His lack of aerial ability has been pointed out as a downside, but as a 5-foot-7 attacking midfielder he's obviously never going to be an expert header of the ball -- and being so supremely skilled in most other departments of the game that matter to a player in his position, why worry too much about what goes on in the air?
Meanwhile, he's slowly improving on the less exciting areas of the game; he's winning more challenges in the opponent's half than he did last season, he tracks back diligently too, and he does appear more robust physically than he did when he first broke through.
Where he fits in
Although many of Europe's top clubs are watching him, don't expect Wirtz to move any time soon. His phenomenal progress has not gone unnoticed but, not only does his contract run until the summer of 2026, unlike many other top talents he's left his career planning to his parents.
The lack of pressure from an agent may calm the speculation somewhat and there are few better places in Europe to further your sporting development than in Leverkusen. However, when Wirtz is eventually ready to move, it'll be at the right time and it won't be on the cheap.