Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland may have rightly dominated back page headlines in Germany this season, but the likes of Daichi Kamada, Jeremiah St. Juste and Ridle Baku? Not so much. Nevertheless, the impact on their respective teams has been just as important.
bundesliga.com shines the spotlight on the top five unsung heroes of the season…
Strikers traditionally get most of the attention in football; after all, goals win games and they tend to score most of them. As such, Andre Silva’s outstanding form this term, with 25 strikes after 31 rounds of matches to keep the Eagles on course for UEFA Champions League qualification, has even deflected the gaze away from fellow forward Luka Jovic and the club’s 12-assist leading provider Filip Kostic - not to mention Kamada.
Not that the Japan international is complaining. The softly spoken 24-year-old, who only rarely gives interviews, no doubt prefers it that way. Indeed, given the language barrier – Kamada speaks only a little English and German – his most effective form of communicating is on the pitch.
“I try to do what’s asked of me when I play, and to do more too,” he told Sport1. “I think I’m doing it quite well, because otherwise the coach would tell me what I’m doing wrong. But that’s not the case.”
Far from it, in fact. Five goals and 11 assists from 29 Bundesliga appearances this term is his hugely profitable return, while no outfield player at the club has featured more often in the Bundesliga in 2020/21.
It is not only Kamada’s creativity and first-rate technique that keep him in the side, however. He also has a gritty edge, the substance to go with the style; he is in the top 25 players for fouls committed this season (37), for example, and Hütter recently praised him for being “waspish in his tackles and asserting himself.” An all-round talent then, even if perhaps underappreciated by a wider audience.
Mainz were second bottom of the Bundesliga table at the start of 2021 with just six points from their first 13 games. Defeat to Bayern Munich in their first game of 2021 spelled the end of Jan-Moritz Lichte - already the second coach of the season - with Bo Svensson drafted in to replace him. If the season had started at that point, the Zerofivers would currently be sixth, having surged clear of the relegation zone to sit in the relatively secure position of 12th.
Much of the credit for that astonishing upswing must of course go to Svensson, but St. Juste has played a leading role too. The 24-year-old has been an integral part of the side and, despite missing Matchdays 16 and 17 due to a thigh injury, he has still played more minutes than any other outfield player at the club this season (2,610).
The 6’1” centre-back rarely puts a foot wrong, and has won 287 tackles and 74 aerial duels, while helping Mainz concede as many goals (19) as Bayern, and fewer than Dortmund and Frankfurt since Svennson took over. That run of eight wins and five draws in 17 games has brought victories over Bayern, Leipzig and Gladbach.
It is telling that in the two games St. Juste missed, Mainz conceded three goals and only picked up one point – albeit a valuable one in a 1-1 draw in Dortmund. A small sample size perhaps, but with him in the side they let in 1.12 goals and win 1.92 points per game; without him it’s 1.5 goals and 0.5 points.
“He’s a great guy,” said Svensson of his defensive rock. “I like him a lot, not only as a player but as a person too. He’s someone who gives absolutely everything in order to make the team better.”
So much so that St. Juste earned a maiden call-up to the senior Netherlands squad in March 2021, and is also the third fastest player in the Bundesliga this season behind Erling Haaland and Alphonso Davies with a top speed of 22.23 mph (35.78 km/h). At this rate, the sky’s the limit for both him and Mainz.
Third in the table, on course for a return to the UEFA Champions League thanks to the second-best defence in the Bundesliga this season (32 goals conceded after 31 games) and Wout Weghorst’s goals – the Dutchman has a career high 20 so far – there is little room in the Wolfsburg narrative for a relatively unknown name like Ridle Baku.
Those in the know, however, are fully aware of his worth. Signed by the Wolves on 1 October 2020, he made his debut off the bench just three days later but has been an ever-present in Oliver Glasner’s starting line-up since Matchday 4.
“He’s a very young player who’s still got plenty of room for improvement,” said the Wolfsburg head coach of the 23-year-old earlier this season. “But his trajectory is definitely going in the right direction. He’s a very humble guy, but he’s also very ambitious. I’ve got no doubt he’ll continue to improve in the coming years.”
That can only mean good news for the Wolves given that the versatile right-back, who can also play as a wing-back or an out-and-out winger, is already among the league’s best players. Baku has six goals and four assists in the Bundesliga this term, putting him behind only Weghorst at the club for overall goal involvements, but top of the league rankings for a defender.
That is undoubtedly in part down to the intensity he brings to the game: the right-footer has made far more sprints (993) and intensive runs (2583) than any other player in the division this term. For context, Leon Bailey (838) and Weghorst (2474) are next in those respective categories.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Baku received his first call-up to the senior Germany squad in November 2020, playing the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 friendly win over the Czech Republic. If he can continue to consistently produce the goods, he won’t fly under the radar for much longer.
Described by Stuttgart head coach Pellegrino Matarazzo as a “soldier” and by sporting director Sven Mislintat as a “bodyguard”, you instantly get a sense of the type of player Endo is. He’s the kind of central midfielder most successful teams have; someone to anticipate, intercept, tackle, block and keep it simple, letting others hog the limelight.
So good is the Japan international in fact, that while Sasa Kalajdzic, Silas Wamangituka and Nicolas Gonzalez have made names for themselves in the final third this season, Endo is the only outfield player at Stuttgart to have started every single Bundesliga match, and one of only five across the whole division.
Watch: Endo's goals and assists against Schalke on Matchday 23
He has only been substituted off twice, missing just 15 minutes of action since the league started back in September. “We’re all extremely pleased with Wataru,” added Matarazzo. “He’s very reliable and does a good job.”
The 28-year-old is an odd juxtaposition of sorts, combining terrier-like aggression to win the ball and ice-cold calm when in possession, invariably making the right decision. He has won a league-high 447 tackles so far in 2020/21, 36 more than his nearest rival, while the 80 aerial duels won is highly respectable for a player who stands at just under 5’10”.
Unglamorous perhaps, but highly effective. He did step out of the shadows once this season though; on Matchday 23 Endo showed he also has a keen eye for goal by scoring two and providing two assists in a 5-1 win over Schalke.
One of just nine players not to have missed a single minute of Bundesliga action in 2020/21, if Bielefeld end up avoiding relegation straight back down to Bundesliga 2, they will owe a considerable debt of gratitude to their goalkeeper.
The fact Ortega has made more saves than any other custodian this season (127) is perhaps to be expected; promoted sides often struggle in the top flight, conceding scoring chances to wilier, more experience opposition.
The fact Ortega has kept nine clean sheets, however, is surprising, especially considering only two teams have let in more goals than Arminia’s 51 this term and both of them, Cologne (56) and Schalke (76), are in the bottom three.
Indeed, Ortega has kept more clean sheets than Manuel Neuer at Bayern and Marwin Hitz at Dortmund, and fewer only than Leipzig’s Peter Gulacsi (15) and Wolfsburg’s Koen Casteels (13).
Watch: Skip to 01:22 for Ortega's jaw-dropping saved against Stuttgart
The big difference of course, is that all four of those goalkeepers are at teams competing for European qualification. For a side battling for survival, such a return is unheard of.
A consistent, reliable last line of defence, Ortega gave the best example of his stunning reflexes against VfB Stuttgart on Matchday 17 when he produced save to deny Kalajdzic that the striker later described as “murderous”, while teammate Fabian Klos called it “inhuman”.
Ortega’s value does not just stem from his ability at keeping out shots, though. He regularly has more touches of the ball per game than any of his teammates, and Werder Bremen head coach Florian Kohfeldt described him as being “like another outfield player” for Bielefeld this season. So much so that he even has an assist to his name in 2020/21, having set up the only goal of the game on Matchday 2 against Cologne.