VfB Stuttgart defender Ozan Kabak has been named TAG Heuer Rookie of the Season 2018/19. - © DFL
VfB Stuttgart defender Ozan Kabak has been named TAG Heuer Rookie of the Season 2018/19. - © DFL
bundesliga

Ozan Kabak: Bundesliga's TAG Heuer Rookie of the Season for 2018/19

"Role model isn't the right word," says Ozan Kabak when asked which fellow players he looks up to. "But Virgil van Dijk and Benjamin Pavard impress me."

There are certainly worse choices than Liverpool's UEFA Champions League-winning centre-back and Kabak's FIFA World Cup-winning teammate at Stuttgart last season, now bound for Bayern Munich.

Impressed he may be, but it should not surprise anyone there is no hero-worship from the teenager, who strode onto the Bundesliga scene with a confidence that strongly suggested his steps at Stuttgart — like Pavard's — are just the first of many.

Parallels with Pavard can be easily drawn. The France international had just a handful of first-team appearances under his belt when he left Lille to move to the Mercedes Benz Arena in 2016. Stuttgart were in Bundesliga 2 at the time; Kabak now finds himself in the second tier too, but has already proven that — at the age of 19 — he can compete with the big boys in their own back yard.

Kabak (l.) will shoulder even greater responsibility at the heart of the Stuttgart defence following Benjamin Pavard's (r.) move to Bayern Munich. - Kaspar-Bartke/Bongarts/Getty Images

"Ozan is one of the most promising young defenders in Europe and will be an important cornerstone of our squad in the medium term," said sporting director Michael Reschke when Kabak put pen to paper on a five-and-a-half year deal in mid-January to complete a switch from Galatasaray.

He had already done enough with the Turkish giants, whom he joined aged 11, to convince iconic coach Fatih Terim to give him not only his first-team debut but also throw him into the deep end of the UEFA Champions League. Rather than drowning, Kabak repaid the man he calls "a father figure" by all but walking on water for the Istanbul outfit.

Terim got another present at the end of the season as Kabak sent him the shirt he wore on his Bundesliga debut when Stuttgart were beaten 4-1 at Bayern Munich in late January, tangible proof of just how far the Ankara-born defender has come in a short time.

Watch: Ozan Kabak - Bundesliga's TAG Heuer Rookie of the Season for 2018/19

His numbers harden up the suspicion that Stuttgart have snared another gem: 64 per cent of aerial challenges won, he came out on top in 60 per cent of challenges overall, and completed 84 per cent of passes. By comparison, Mats Hummels' stats were 66, 68 and 91 in the same categories.

But the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner was playing for the title-winners and is 11 years older than Kabak. It doesn't take too much stretching of the imagination to think the Turkey U18 international will be at least that good in a decade's time.

"He's got a lot of potential. He's still very young. You could see in the game against Hannover that he's got a lot of talent. He's very laid back, very calm and doesn't let the club's current situation [in a relegation fight] bother him," said Stuttgart's ex-Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Gonzalo Castro last season. "He's definitely got the talent to play at a big club."

Kabak (r.) was second only to Pavard in terms of challenges won for Stuttgart in 2018/19. - imago images / ActionPictures

Kabak can lay claim to outdoing Hummels and a good many other of his defensive counterparts in the goalscoring column for 2018/19. He tallied three strikes in just 15 appearances — a total beaten only by RB Leipzig's Willi Orban and Fortuna Düsseldorf's Kaan Ayhan, both of whom played significantly more games — and his brace in the 5-1 win over Hannover on Matchday 24 saw him overtake Hakan Calhanoglu as the youngest Turkish player to score twice in a Bundesliga game (aged 18 years, 11 months and seven days). Only Timo Werner and Horst Köppel were younger in scoring their first doubles for Stuttgart.

"It's incredible how worldy-wise he is for his age. It's astonishing. I see him every day and am amazed at how he mature he is," explained Stuttgart's sporting director and ex-Germany international Thomas Hitzlsperger. "He wants to know everything; he wants to learn German right away and understand everything. That's the kind of attitude we need. He's already a role model, despite his age."

"He's got a good head on his shoulders, he's not the kind of person to do crazy stuff," added Stuttgart captain Christian Gentner. "His greatest strength is how uncompromising he is in tackles."

A head for heights: Kabak (c.) scored his first career goals in a 5-1 drubbing of Hannover. - imago images / Pressefoto Baumann

That courage brings with it inevitable bumps and bruises, and the odd break, such as the nose fracture and facial wound he suffered in the relegation/promotion play-off first leg against Union Berlin. Yet, he still lined up for the return, which sent Stuttgart down.

That now begs the question of whether the Swabian outfit can hold on to their newly acquired asset.

"Of course, there are a lot of big clubs in Europe. You have to work a lot and have patience," explained Kabak, who — along with Dortmund's Jadon Sancho — was the Bundesliga's youngest first-team regular in 2018/19. "The next step is too far away to talk about it now."

His performances last season suggest it might not be, but when he signed, Kabak said, "I've got big aims that I'd like to achieve in the long term with VfB Stuttgart." Fans of the three-time Bundesliga champions will hope the first of those is powering their club to an immediate return to the big time.