Alongside Jamal Musiala, Florian Wirtz is one of the great hopes for the future of German football. Out since mid-March with a serious knee problem, the 19-year-old is finally good to go again for Bayer Leverkusen - much to the delight of a team who have sorely missed him so far in 2022/23.
Wirtz became the youngest player to reach 50 Bundesliga appearances in December 2021, but the 19-year-old's season was brought to a premature conclusion on 13 March 2022 against former club Cologne due to an ACL tear in his left knee that required surgery.
He has spent the past few months in rehabilitation, but was deemed fit enough to accompany the squad on their recent USA trip in late November, and although the four-time Germany international did not participate in Leverkusen's 3-0 friendly win over newly formed MLS club St. Louis City while stateside, he did come off the bench in the 61st minute of the team's 3-0 friendly defeat by Rangers on 10 December.
After almost nine months out of action, including missing the World Cup, Wirtz was not only able to feature in that friendly, he is now training fully with his teammates as the league’s resumption draws closer.
Head coach Xabi Alonso was understandably delighted to have his team's creative heartbeat at his disposal for the first time since taking the reins in October. "He's a fantastic player," said the Spanish tactician after the match in Glasgow. "He can play in a lot of different positions. Today we all saw the special quality he has.
"He's like a fantastic new signing for us."
Wirtz himself was emotional after passing a major milestone on his road back to the first team. "I'm exhausted," he told reporters afterwards. "I'm not used to the tempo after being out for nine months. All in all it was a disappointing game from us, which is why I'm not in the best of moods right now. But I think that will change later in the day, once the penny drops how important this day was for me.
"Because it was so cold here, my lungs hurt," he continued. "My fitness level is actually pretty good, but there were a lot of emotions involved today. It was more difficult mentally, which then affects your body. I could feel that today."
Wirtz and Co. still have plenty of time to get up to sharpen the blunt ends and rediscover something resembling a rhythm ahead of the second half of the season, which begins away at Borussia Mönchengladbach on 22 January, and a longer spell on the field in a 4-1 win over FC Zürich will have helped – physically and psychologically.
He got his name on the scoresheet against the Swiss champions, and played a prominent part in all of his team’s attacks. “Just with his presence on the field, our whole game transforms,” enthused board member Rudi Völler.
For Wirtz, however, there is still plenty of room for improvement. “Each time I got the ball, I felt there was something I still need to work on, to recover that feeling for receiving the ball and playing it first time,” he said. “I made a few mistakes.”
After such a lengthy absence, a few cobwebs are bound still to be hanging, but his coach is focused on the positive impact of the 19-year-old’s return. “With Flo, we’re a better team and I’m also a better coach,” he said.
Watch: Florian Wirtz's best bits
Leverkusen fans will be hoping the midfield string-puller can soon recapture the form that helped him play a leading role in the team's eventual third-placed finish last term, with seven goals and 10 assists across 24 Bundesliga appearances. That contributed to him earning first four senior international caps for Germany between September and October 2021, while he would have been a candidate for the World Cup had he been fully fit.
The 2022/23 campaign is Wirtz's third full campaign of Bundesliga football, the teenager having debuted at just 17 in May 2020. He has 13 goals and 16 assists to show for his first 60 top-flight outings, is widely regarded as one of the best young players Germany has ever produced and recently signed a contract extension with Leverkusen through to summer 2027.
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