Teenage Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Florian Wirtz says being the best is what drives him, as he reflects on a precocious career which has already taken him so far.
Wirtz made his Bundesliga debut at the age of 17 years and 16 days in May last year, immediately inking his first lines in Leverkusen's history books as their youngest ever debutant in Die Werkself's first fixture following a suspension in play prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The rest, as they say, is history, with Wirtz now a fixture at the heart of the Leverkusen midfield, and starting to feel that the boots left for him by Kai Havertz following his switch to Chelsea last summer could soon be a size too small for a youngster driven by the desire to be Bayer's new benchmark.
Watch: Florian Wirtz - a candidate for December Player of the Month
"It motivates me, to be even better than Kai," he told Sportbild magazine. "I always want to be the best and I hate losing. I've always been like this."
Before Havertz left, Wirtz had enough time to take notes – not that he had initially imagined the strides he would take once opting to join from the youth academy of local rivals Cologne.
"I watched [Havertz] in training; how he behaved in front of goal, and moved in the space," Wirtz recalled.
"You've got to say, the Coronavirus is what gave me the chance to train regularly with the first team. It started off working in small groups, and then with the whole team. I got the opportunity to measure up to the professionals and show what I could do."
Coach Peter Bosz did not hesitate in extending his opportunities on the training field to minutes in the Bundesliga.
"He told me that it didn't matter to him if a player is young or old – for him, there are only good and even better players," Wirtz said. "That really motivated me.
"It was then very strange [training with the first team for the first time]. I'd only ever known the players from the TV and if I'd bumped into them on the street, I'd have probably asked if I could have my photo taken with them – so I had to keep my phone in my pocket.
"I had to find my role and I didn't say much to begin with, I was just carrying the balls, listening and training. When the professionals saw that I had the ability, they gave me a lot of support.
"I was surprised that I was getting most support from the players who played in the same position as me. They didn't see me as a rival, but rather as somebody who could help the team. That helped me a lot to get used to the style of play quickly."
Watch: Wirtz becomes the Bundesliga's youngest ever scorer
Wirtz was such a quick learner that Bosz started him in the Matchday 26 match at Werder Bremen on 18 May 2020 in the team's first game after the restart – a 4-1 win which set a more than positive tone. He went on to become the Bundesliga's youngest ever scorer a couple of weeks later (a record since broken by Borussia Dortmund's Youssoufa Moukoko), rifling in past none other than Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer in a 4-2 home defeat.
He has hardly looked back since, establishing his place in the Leverkusen midfield and playing all but one of their games this season, until being given a much-needed rest on Matchday 15, as his teammates struggled to a draw with the side he had debuted against.
"I knew right from the start that I could improve under Peter Bosz," Wirtz said. "I could feel how he was making me a better player."
Wirtz has improved so much under Bosz' guidance that the club did not even consider an alternative when Havertz moved to London last summer.
"It's a great feeling to know that all of this trust was placed in me," continued Wirtz. "By doing this, the club really backed me even more. I never gave any thought to them signing Mario Götze or anybody else, but even if they had signed somebody else, I would have accepted the challenge of having to prove myself."
That is what he continues to do, to such an extent that he is considering where his next steps may take him – perhaps even the European Championship with Germany in the summer.
"I'm not sure I can allow myself to dream of that, but the past months have proven to me that there are a lot of things you just can't plan for," he said. "Sometimes, there are moments I just have to sit down to realise what's happened to me."
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