Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick has revealed why he opted to start teenage forward Joshua Zirkzee as Robert Lewandowski’s replacement against Hoffenheim on Saturday, and praised the youngster for his “quality” in front of goal.
Lewandowski’s four-week lay-off with a groin injury prompted inevitable questions about how the defending Bundesliga champions would line up in his absence.
Serge Gnabry and Thomas Müller were considered among the primary candidates to fill the lone striker’s role in Flick’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, but the 55-year-old instead chose to give 18-year-old Dutch forward Zirkzee his first Bundesliga start.
“Things worked really well in the Chelsea game, so I wanted to change things as little as possible in the team,” Flick explained, referencing his side’s dominant display in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie, which they won 3-0 away from home. “By doing that, the understanding [between the players] and automations are still there.
“Joshua’s trained well and he’s showed in training that he’s got good quality and is a good finisher. He can hold the ball up well and has the physicality to do so, which is important when things are tight up top. So that was our thinking, to make a like-for-like replacement [for Lewandowski]. It was good.”
That is quite the understatement. Bayern were 4-0 up with barely half an hour on the clock against Hoffenheim, and Zirkzee scored his side’s third after just 15 minutes en route to a thumping 6-0 victory that kept them top of the league table.
Watch: Zirkzee's MD17 Moment of the Matchday
That means Zirkzee now has three goals in just 101 minutes of action spread across four games, giving him a better goals-per-minute ratio (34) even than Lewandowski himself (86) and Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland (47).
Nevertheless, as happy as Flick was with the youngster, he knows more is still to come: “He did well. It was the right decision to bring him in with the first team, as it was with the other young players because they can improve and learn by playing alongside top players every day in training.
“Joshua’s performance was good, not top-notch, but pretty good. He scored a goal, which is important for a striker. He has plenty of room for improvement, though, and he knows that.”
As such Zirkzee is set to play again as Bayern travel to Schalke in the DFB Cup quarter-finals this week, with Flick once again banking on his charges to collectively compensate for the absence of their talisman.
“We know how good Lewy is and what he gives us,” Flick said. “But it was good to see that the team came together [against Hoffenheim] and was able to produce a performance like that. That’s what we need to over the coming weeks as well.”